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Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Mindfulness, Compassion, Nonviolence - Series 9

 Stress, better called challenges, is not all bad. These challenges and the body’s stress responses protect us from dangers . They also help us learn from challenges so that we are prepared for future encounters. They strengthen our brain’s memory and learning circuits.

Our autonomic nervous system plays a big part in our response to stress. One part which helps us fight or flee is  called the sympathetic nervous system.  It also has parts which help bonding and socializing as a way of survival. It is the social bonding which helped our ancestors hunt as a group for food and mobilize as a group to defend themselves. This includes the parasympathetic nervous system. Meditation techniques have been shown to influence both these circuits. Meditation training and practice can help reduce unnecessary alert responses and promote empathy, bonding, and compassion.

Acute stress challenges the body to mobilize the resources to “fight or flee”.  Acute Stress response system is our internal 911 code. Let us imagine an unlikely experience, say of coming face to face with a tiger on the loose. There may be a momentary freeze due to the fright. But the automatic alarm system of our body goes into high gear and prepares the body to fight or run. Adrenaline is released by the sympathetic nervous system. The heart rate goes up; blood pressure goes up and muscles get tense. Sugar is mobilized inside the body to supply a quick burst of energy. These are called stress responses.

Once the danger is over, the body resets itself and conditions go back to the baseline.

Although many of us live comfortably in safe environment, a vast majority of people experience stress for other reasons. They are due to socio-economic and psychological factors. Many are real, such as poverty, illness etc. Many are due to fear of catching an infection or losing a job or anxiety about the future such as stock market crash and losing one’s savings. Although they are possibilities, worrying about them is not helpful. The body responds to this kind of anxieties also with the same kind of acute stress responses. The body also maintains the alarm system unnecessarily active for prolonged period and fails to reset to normal conditions.

People with chronic medical conditions and chronic poverty have their autonomic nervous system set on high alert because of symptoms associated with their condition and also because of anxiety about the future and fear of losing the support system.

When the body does not reset, the stress responses become chronic leading to either fatigue of the response system or persistence of the changes such as increased blood pressure and heart rate. Chronic stress in turn aggravates or leads to physical and psychological disorders such as hypertension, obesity, early aging, anxiety disorders, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

If you are interested in learning more about Stress and its effects on the body, you may wish to read a book with the title “Why Zebras Don’t get Ulcers” by Robert M. Sapolsky, McArthur Genius researcher and author. Better still you can listen to him in this short video and enjoy learning a tough subject with the least effort and get amused at the same time.

Lately, we are learning about another kind of stress with effects lasting throughout one’s life and even into the next generation. This is called Toxic Stress. This is caused by conditions associated with extreme poverty and persistent violence. What makes this toxic is the additional factors of lack of support systems and any hope for an end to these conditions. Both adults and children may find themselves in toxic life situations. The effects of toxic stress are particularly devastating for children affecting the development of their nervous system and also for pregnant women whose children may show the effects of the toxic stress. (Here is a link to an article on this topic for those who are interested:

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