PART 2: Chronic stress – The brain concludes that we are continuously in danger

The autonomic nervous system regulates the functions of our body as situations so require. Recovery and healing systems are the most active during sleep.  After lunch it is important to digest the food and use the nutrients efficiently. When faced with imminent threat, the immune system and food processing are not important. These functions are turned off to conserve all possible energy for the use of muscles, which are needed in the fight-or-flight response.

By and large, the autonomic nervous system works unconsciously. It is responsible for many vital functions such as blood pressure, temperature regulation, digestion, and function of the adrenal cortex.  It works through the neural network that controls the heart and other organs. The autonomic nervous system keeps us alive without us knowingly doing anything about it.

The autonomic nervous system consists of two complementary parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.  When active, the parasympathetic nervous system slows down our heartbeat, enhancing digestion and healing. It strives to calm the body down and keep the vital functions stable.

The sympathetic part is responsible for preparing our body for action, with the axons (nerve fibers) of the system being able to innervate tissues in almost every organ. The sympathetic nervous system becomes active in stressful situations and during hard physical strain.

Both parts of the autonomic nervous systems normally work in good cooperation, but as a seesaw.  When the other becomes active, the other slows down. For instance, in acute stress reaction the sympathetic nervous system works at full speed, in an instant. The parasympathetic part ceases to operate and, for example, digestion almost comes to a halt. The sympathetic and parasympathetic systems have evolved to enable accurate and fast regulation of our internal mechanisms, regardless of the situation.

The fight-or-flight response is a way for us to cope in a threatening, rapidly escalating situation. In the time of cavemen, situations requiring response were normally quickly over and fights did not last for weeks or months. For us today, things can be completely different: The stress reaction might be a permanent state, and the parasympathetic nervous system does not have the chance to return our body to rest.

In long term stress the cortisol levels in our body are continuously high

Chronic stress keeps the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis active. It is like an idling motor, pumping stress hormones, such as cortisol, to our system.

Cortisol helps us to confront the threat, but it simultaneously shuts down the immune system. From the evolutionary point of view, this makes sense: If a crocodile attacks, we can shut down all the functions in the body that are not essential for fleeing or fighting. The immune defense of our body is weakened when we are continuously stressed, and this might lead to a series of infections. Stress factors also play a role in the development of autoimmune diseases, heart and blood vessel diseases, and cancer. Continuous boosts of adrenaline can harm blood vessels, raise blood pressure and increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Worrying and fear increase our mental load and can put further strain on the sympathetic nervous system; physical symptoms persist, recovery via beneficial rest and sleep does not happen.

Heavy cognitive and emotional load during recovery from an illness might be as bad for our body as physical exercise. Our body would choose to put the work aside when being ill.

Chronic Stress affects memory, concentration and appetite

In a state of chronic stress, the brain thinks that a physical fight is about to start at any time. Cortisol, in turn, tells our body to have much energy available. It then enhances appetite and storing of extra energy, with might lead to weight gain.

Cortisol is also released to the hippocampus, the part of our brain which is central for memorizing and learning. A stressed-out person has difficulties in learning and regulating their emotions. There are also often problems associated with concentration and memory.

Burnout

Chronic stress cannot go on forever without its repercussions. Burnout is the consequence of chronic stress causing severe disturbance to our vital physical and mental mechanisms. A simultaneous collapse of our psychological, neural, metabolic and immune systems might be so all-encompassing that a complete recovery is very slow or even impossible.

The best cure for burnout is prevention. It can be difficult to accept the graveness of the situation. People tend to compare themselves and their work rhythms to others, set the bar too high and pretend that everything is fine. Just moments before the disintegration takes place, everything might appear quite normal for the people around.

Talk to your friends and family, colleagues, your superior or a health care professional if you feel that the load is too high. Usually the first cautionary signs are linked to changes in your sleep patterns.

The brain, sleep and stress

When our lives are in balance, we recover from acute stress reactions and even longer burdensome periods of strain. We all experience major turning points in our lives: a newcomer to the family, moving house, a study or work project that is exceptionally demanding. We overcome these changes and challenges when the quality and amount of recovery is sufficient enough.

Sleep is our most important means of recovery and an indicator of balance. Weeks and months of disturbed sleep is a sign of stress, and sleep deprivation further weakens our resilience to adapt to the challenges we have to deal with.

The brain needs sleep. During sleep our bodies repair and restore in ways we’re not aware of. It is almost like we need a nightly reboot to feel physically and mentally well.

There is no health without sleep. The importance of proper recovery becomes clear after experiencing periods of sleeping poorly. At worst life is reduced to mere coping. Unfortunately, this is reality for so many of us, so much so that we have begun to think it is normal not to sleep enough. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.

When we sleep well most nights and feel refreshed in the morning, our body and mind are better prepared to perform well. We are in balance.

The complete set of 5 articles explains the Moodmetric measurement, science behind and the applications:

  1. Part 1: Fight or flight response
  2. Part 2: Chronic stress – The brain concludes that we are continuously in danger
  3. Part 3: Tools for long term and continuous stress measurement
  4. Part 4: The Moodmetric ring stress measurement and understanding the data
  5. Part 5: The Moodmetric measurement in preventive occupational health 

 

High stress levels – then what?

In my previous blog post I promised to write in detail how I dealt with my chronic stress last year. As I told, the turning point was the summer holiday when I started experiencing difficulties in falling asleep.

 

Sleep is the most important part of recovery. I did know that, but one cannot really force herself to sleep and taking sleeping pills was not an option for me. Therefore, I started tackling the stress from another direction.

The very first thing I did was downloading Headspace on my phone. Headspace is an  application using proven meditation and mindfulness techniques to train the mind for a healthier, happier, and more enjoyable life. I had tried Headspace before and was already convinced about its effectiveness. Having also tried other guided mindfulness applications I noticed that the voice matters to me! Andy Puddicombe has a voice that is calming by nature 🙂 Mindfulness is our basic human ability to be fully present, aware of our surroundings, and not being too reactive or overwhelmed by what is going on around us. According to my Moodmetric levels, mindfulness is low numbers indicating inactive sympathetic nervous system.

However, after trying mindfulness a few times at home during the weekends, I realized it was of no use. It was really difficult to find a nice and quiet place for a meditation exercise. Normally my Moodmetric numbers go down steadily during meditation exercises, but as constantly hearing kids running and screaming upstairs, I could not concentrate. By accident (I got upset for not being able to concentrate and marched out for a walk), I found out that going out for a walk lowered my stress levels more effectively than meditating at home. I continued mindfulness exercises on work days.

Then I gave up on kettlebell exercises for a few months and started going for walks instead. Before, putting my trainers on just to go for a walk, was never really an option. I had this thought that going ‘just’ for a walk was a waste of (sports) time. It started to become clear for me that exercising is a good way to prevent stress, but if you are already overloaded, strenuous exercise only adds up to high stress levels.

Working less during the evenings was an obvious move of course. However, not always being able to refrain from work, I started studying how different kind of work tasks affected my stress levels. Quite soon I noticed that writing e-mails raised my stress levels easily. On the other hand, design or creative work without time pressure kept my stress levels down. As I talked about this with our CEO she had experienced the opposite – going through e-mail was less stressful for her than any kind of creative work. This is a good reminder of how we are all individuals and should find out ourselves what are the causes of stress and sources of recovery.

Also, working remotely from home helped me to keep stress levels moderate (the kids being at daycare, of course). This is probably explained by the fact that I could solely concentrate on my work without unexpected social interruptions.  

In addition, I adjusted my diet a bit. From my previous experience I had noticed that cutting down carbs and sugar kept me steadily energetic. I also started taking vitamin and mineral supplements: D3, B12, magnesium citrate and zinc to fight the stress and help the immune system.  

In October, I started seeing clear results with my stress levels. The change had happened in my mind as well – the future seemed brighter again, less worrying thoughts and more feelings of accomplishment. I was able to concentrate better, which had a clear correlation with getting more work done. All this change in my thoughts even though nothing else had changed in my surroundings. Also no difficulties in falling asleep anymore.  

Mindfulness was probably the most effective action on my way to a less-stress life. Even though I wasn’t doing the exercises for more than two or three times a week, I felt that it helped me the most. According to studies, it takes 8 weeks to get results. In that sense, I would recommend trying mindfulness even if one can not commit to the exercises every day.

One might wonder why the actions I took seem so systematic and straightforward. Is managing stress really that simple? Yes and no.  

Knowledge work productivity and wellbeing have been my area of interest for a long time. I have acquired decent theoretical knowledge of the substance through my work as a researcher, so in that sense I was well aware how to tackle chronic stress as a knowledge worker. In general, the internet is loaded with tips and guidance towards stress free life.

However, effective stress management requires lifestyle and behavioral changes. It is easy to try something for a few times, but the hard part is adopting a lasting routine. I get my motivation to take action by looking at my stress levels on the Moodmetric app.  

The idea behind Moodmetric is that everyone should find out what are their individual sources of stress and recovery. What works for me, might not work for you. The Moodmetric ring is an excellent tool to find that out.

How chronic stress almost caught me

I have used Moodmetric ring on a regular basis for almost two years now.

When I first got to know Moodmetric, my life was not terribly hectic, I did not feel to be particularly stressed. I did not check my stress levels from the Moodmetric app continuously, as there was not much change – figures were quite low, nothing to be alarmed of.

Until last January.

It was already during Christmas break, when I started to notice the first signs. The feeling of hopelessness and a hint of bitterness had started slowly fester inside me. Two and a half years of burdening family life with extreme efficiency had resulted in complete loss of energy. Our family size had undergone significant change few years back, as the number of our kids went from one to three at once. Without a proper safety net, my husband and I had worked like machines to take care of our family. After 2,5 yrs. we were both exhausted and the only thing keeping us sane was being able to go to work to our paid jobs. Yes, it is a bit twisted, that you go to work to recover from family life.

At work my colleagues would have their daily laughs, because I started forgetting things. I would even go to a meeting and be very impressed by a work very nicely done just to hear that I had been part of it. Memory problems showed up.

By the end of January I noticed that I couldn’t pull through my regular kettlebell exercises anymore let alone improving the performance. I was just tired. I wanted to exercise, but I was too tired to get to it.

Then I got my first flu. And a second flu. And a third flu. Soon I noticed that I was the only one in our family getting sick all the time. (By the end of July I had been ill almost ten times.) My immune system had failed me.  

In March I decided to take a personal risk as I threw in my lot with the Moodmetric team. I became a co-owner in the company. Becoming an entrepreneur was something I had always dreamt of, but I had little doubts about the timing. It was a great move for me, but I knew that the positive stress – excitement – could be a challenging combination with the cumulated stress from the family circus. Would I be able to unwind from all the positive stress ahead me?

In April it became obvious to me that my overall stress levels were higher than usual. Wearing the Moodmetric ring, I had data to back this up – I could witness the change in figures from the app. I was alerted, but not afraid, because I am a very good sleeper and felt that I got the recovery I need. In overall I was optimistic about the future.

The spring 2016 and early summer were hectic and exciting. We were rewriting the company vision and strategy, and talking to loads of people with to get feedback. What we heard was so supporting that at times I couldn’t restrain myself from working unreasonable hours. On the other hand, I had started to question my work performance and felt like I was not working enough. I knew I had gone into overdrive a big time, but was hoping that I could make it to my summer vacation.

When July and summer vacation started, I breathed freely again – I had made it to the safety zone and now I could unwind and recover!

Only, that feeling lasted for a short moment, because sleep disorders kicked in. I started having problems with falling asleep and my heart would race for anxiety. Bedtime became one of my least favorite time of the day, because I was afraid I couldn’t fall asleep.

Needless to say, summer vacation came in too late. I had neglected my recovery and crossed the line that I didn’t wish to. I am well aware that one shouldn’t play with sleep disorders. My Moodmetric daily diagrams were screaming red. That is when I decided to start adding more unwinding moments to my everyday life and not just wait for the next vacation. I did not want to welcome chronic stress into my life.

In short, the lifestyle and behavior changes I adopted are mindfulness exercises, less heavy exercise and replacing with long walks, adding micronutrients, prioritizing sleep, etc. I will write down how I tackled chronic stress in very much detail in my next blog, due out soon!

Part 2 can now be read here

Picture: Pixabay