There are many reasons for stress. What stresses one person might to another be a positive drive to action.
You would possibly think that de-stressing is about relaxation, but there are many techniques for de-stressing that have little to do with relaxation and more to do with distraction.’
The parasympathetic nervous system.
To begin with, stress is connected to the state of your autonomic nervous system, a system that is divided into the ‘parasympathetic’ and the ‘sympathetic’ nervous systems.
The parasympathetic system is your functional system which regulates your everyday bodily activities (blood supply, breathing, digestion, elimination); this carries on without your involvement, although you can control certain aspects of it.
The sympathetic nervous system.
Your sympathetic nervous system becomes active in cases of emergency. If something happens that is potentially life-threatening, many of your body’s processes are temporarily either slowed or shut down, and an increased supply of glucose goes to the brain (whilst its access to the cells of the body is blocked – ‘insulin resistance’) in order to deal with the situation that has arisen. In other words, the brain needs the glucose boost temporarily to find a rapid solution to the emergency.
And after the emergency…
The problems begin when the sympathetic nervous system, having dealt with the emergency, doesn’t settle down again and continues to over-function; this could be because of problems at work, at home, or with life generally. When this happens, the ‘temporary’ boost of glucose and the shutting down of part of your system becomes more than ‘temporary’.
There are several repercussions from this including the factor that inflammation in the body is increased because the insulin/glucose balance in the body fails to stabilise.
Inflammation is a major stress factor.
We tend to associate the word with localised inflammation, in other words we think of a joint or a muscle being uncomfortable and inflamed, but this is different, it’s inflammation on a whole-body level, and whether it’s high or low level, it is more insidious than an isolated location.
We all know that an aching shoulder, knee, or elbow is tiring; it’s a constant irritation that absorbs our attention.
When the body is undergoing permanent low level irritation, it’s exhausting and energy draining, but the main problem is that it’s cyclical; the less energy you have, the less there is for the body to deal with the inflammation.
So you go for something to ‘perk you up’, usually sugar-based. This boosts the glucose levels in the body, but because your glucose/insulin levels are not balanced due to your being in stress mode, the glucose is forced to the brain (which is what happens in the emergency situation – the brain needing the extra energy to deal with the tiger that’s about to attack you!). In effect, you started the cycle again.
What can I do about it?
This is almost impossible to answer as it depends on what is stressing you in the first place. However, there are a number of factors to take into account that can help to improve the situation and some techniques that can also help.
Some foods are more inflammatory than others. This will vary from person to person, but if you know what they are, avoid them.
One interesting example that I read recently is that red meat contains one molecule that is not found in humans; therefore, when this molecule enters the human body, the immune system sees it as an invader and, in order to fight it, creates inflammation, in effect using fire to stop the spread of the potential problem, and ‘burn out’ the invader.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t eat red meat, but this is one example of how the body deals with something that it doesn’t want.
Where to start?!
Very briefly, following an event, a part of our brain mulls an issue over and over. It compares it to previous similar events, it forms plans as to how to deal with it, it considers what you might have said at the time, how things might have been better had something else happened, and so on.
The Chinese call this the ‘Monkey Brain/Mind’. It’s also known as your ‘Default Mode Network’, and is the network of brain cells from approximately the middle-front of your skull towards the back.
The problem is to break the thought-cycle that is creating the stress. This involves various techniques, many of which involve distraction from the problem, if only for a short time. Often during that short time, the situation itself either alters or possibly resolves in some unexpected way.
(In the diagram, the ‘mPFC’ refers to the median Pre-Frontal Cortex’, the ‘PCC’ to the Posterior Cingulate Cortex – i.e. front to back along the top of the head).
Distraction can be in the form of anything that alters your focus for a reasonable length of time, which engages your brain and therefore disengages you from the problem. Puzzles, meditation, focusing on breathing, learning/playing an instrument, listening attentively to music… I’m not convinced that watching TV is as good.
Maybe it’s also worth pointing out that this part of the brain is the location of what Freud called the ‘ego’, and which is also known as the ‘autobiographical memory’. This is where you constantly recreate that picture of how you see yourself – the Monkey Brain in action.
This is a good way to de-stress, and ties in with (2) above. The exercise shouldn’t be exhausting, but slightly cardiovascular is good. (Various tests have been done that show that forcing the body very hard during exercise doesn’t help to de-stress as much as gentle exercise).
Obviously this is where tai chi and qigong fit in. This type of exercise connects the mind & body, each helping the other to relax and soften.
4. Central equilibrium.
One of the main reasons however why tai chi and qigong are so good for de-stressing you is that both are about the physical ‘balancing’ of the body, in other words, making the body work as a perfect unit.
How can you feel stressed if your body – your own personal universe – is moving breathing and rotating perfectly, and is working in perfect accord not only with itself but also with your environment?
James Drewe teaches Taijiquan and qigong in both London and in Kent. Details of weekly classes can be found on the website, and there are classes for 2-person Taijiquan on one Saturday a month.
Phone: 07836-710281 or 020-8883 3308