Part One; What's Happening to My Body? Knowledge is Power
When you’re anxious, or after a panic attack, I’m sure that you can tell me what you are feeling and and perhaps, you can even describe what you were thinking during your anxiety or a panic attack. But there is something else going on, a physical component that can be as much, or even more powerful than what you are feeling or thinking.
Some people like the thrill of excitement, or the “adrenaline rush” as we call it. Another term for this is the “Flight or Fight Response, or Syndrome”. You’ve probably heard these terms, and I will discuss what is going on physically, so you can identify those physical signs and triggers. Have you ever wondered why you feel anxious and others feel really great when confronted by similar challenges? How is it that some people who enjoy the adrenaline rush may actually be physically different from those who suffer from panic attacks? Part of the difference is your perception of what is actually happening, and who is in control of the situation. We can go into that further in another blog. Right now, we’re going to stick to the physical part.
The Flight or Fight Syndrome is given to us by Nature to deal with emergencies. Beginning with the creation of mankind, this physical response to a perceived threat is rapid, effective, and complete, at the first sign of danger.
The first thing that must happen, is that your brain is alerted to some kind of danger. The danger may be real or something perceived as dangerous. Think about your brain as a three pound computer, sitting in it’s case on top of your neck. While it’s pretty sophisticated, it has two jobs and two jobs only; to drive your mind and your body. How does it do this? Though feedback from internal and external sources. That is, it takes information put in by your five senses; hearing, smell, eyesight, touch, taste, or by signals sent from within the body via chemicals, neurotransmitters, hormones, electricity, allowing it to respond. While this is a really elegant piece of equipment that you are responsible for, it doesn’t always function perfectly. That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t help it out in anyway that we can.
So let’s just track an external source of anxiety, ok? Let’s just say you hear a loud crash in the other room. You’re startled, right? Then what happens? Well, there are a lot of theories, and I will explain one of them to you.
THE LIMBIC SYSTEMYGDALA
OK, since we’re tracking this startle response, the sound causes the Amygdala to register fear in the form of the startle response. The amygdala is a little almond-shaped structure in the brain that processes emotions. This is the control center for the identification of danger and is fundamental for self preservation.
The Amygdala is a component of the Limbic System, the part of the brain deep inside that manages more of the primitive parts of your functioning. This is the part that has a lot to do with your survival; that is, your hunger, sex drive, and emotions. Among other structures, the amygdala is connected to the hippocampus.
This structure, shaped somewhat like a sea horse, which is what hippocampus means, is in charge of memories. The left and right hippocampi are involved in long-term memory storage. When these are damaged, you cannot store new memories.
The hippocampus allows you to compare the conditions of a present threat with similar past experiences and enables you to choose the best option to guarantee your survival.
This structure then sends signals to the cortex, or the outer layer of your brain where you can think about what is happening and make your choices.
The cortex is responsible for the more sophisticated functioning in the brain, such as talking and thinking, as well as movement and sensory control.
So it controls the fact that you heard the crash, the fact that you jumped when you heard it, and the fact that your first words, or sounds such as a scream, were uttered about the crash.
ANS; SNS, PNS;
So, those are some of the structures that respond to the sound of the crash. What else happens?
Everything speeds up inside you, including the brain, the heart, your breathing, your muscles tense up, your blood vessels contract in our arms and legs, and you become very fast. This is part of your automatic response mechanism or Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), designed to keep you alive. What a terrific gift, right? The Autonomic Nervous system is divided into two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PNS). Part of the sympathetic nervous system’s job is to help you stay awake, respond to stress and react to emergencies. Adrenaline is produced on the sympathetic nervous system’s side of your body.
Part of the parasympathetic nervous system’s job is to facilitate relaxation and help you go to sleep. When the parasympathetic system is activated, the bowel and other non-muscle organs receive good blood flow, the pupils of your eyes constrict and your glands function well and secrete their various compounds. Absence of parasympathetic activity leads to poor digestion, poor healing and poor organ function.
If we don’t find time to care for our bodies, over time they will break down. It’s not like we can go to a body mechanic to fix it, either. Once organs are destroyed by stress, we can’t just get new ones. Part of the reason you are listening to these tracks it to help your body restore some of the functioning of your weary cells and organs. It is very important to take time out from your life to allow for rest and proper parasympathetic action in our bodies. Proper sleep, nutrition and balance in your life will help you feel better. You can purchase CD’s from our website; www.thestressmasters.com that will teach you breathing exercises and offer relaxation tracks that will help you achieve this.
Have you ever experienced a wave of relief when something that has frightened you has passed? Have you laughed yourself silly when people have jumped out and startled you at a surprise birthday party? Hate it, don’t you? Some of us do, others revel in it. Part of that response is caused by a substance named adrenaline. Adrenaline is a chemical that is produced in your body by the little Adrenal Glands that sit on top of each kidney. Adrenaline actually kicks the body into overdrive when it’s needed. When it’s in the brain, adrenaline is called norepinephrine. There are also medications that focus on managing norepinephrine levels in your brain.
This is the end of Part One, “The Stress Masters: What’s happening to my body? Knowledge is power.” I will write Part Two in a few days.
Diana L. Walcutt, M.D., is a psychologist who wrote about mental health for HealthCentral.