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 

 

PART 1: Fight or flight response

Moodmetric fight or flight

Our bodies do not let us down when faced with a life-endangering situation. They prepare us for the fight with the many means available to us as a result of evolution.

The amygdala is an area of the brain that controls our decision-making and emotional responses. Its tasks include the processing of fear and evaluation of the threat, all based on information conveyed to us by our senses, such as our eyes and ears. From what we have learned, a crocodile presents an extremely dangerous threat, causing the amygdala to instantly send an emergency signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain is like a command center that communicates with the rest of the body, activating the sympathetic nervous system in an alarming situation.

The fight or flight response is activated by the sympathetic nervous system

The sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight-or-flight response before we consciously make any decision on how to act. Many things happen very fast. First the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine (also called noradrenaline) are released into our system. We notice the effects: Rapid pulse and respiration increase oxygen intake for fast action. Blood pressure goes up and extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Blood sugar (glucose) and fats from energy stores are released into the bloodstream to give us the extra power we need.

Skin temperature goes up and the increased sweat on the palms of our hands improves our grip– should we need to climb a tree to flee. Digestion is slowed down – all our energy is now conserved for staying alive.

All these reactions are caused by some very fast chemical processes in our body. Our preparedness for the fight is automatic and we flee away from the crocodile without conscious cognitive processing.

The flight-or-fight response and Walter B. Cannon

The term fight or flight was first used by M.D. Walter B. Cannon in 1915. He studied and taught at Harvard University department of psychology and specialized in the research of physical reactions of laboratory animals under pressure.

In his research Cannon observed noticeable physical changes in the digestive systems of animals experiencing fear. He subsequently spent some 20 years studying the relationship of psychological and physical effects of stress on animals.

Cannon also redefined the biological term homeostasis to signify the internal balance of the body. According to Cannon, our bodies continuously seek to maintain a predefined state of equilibrium by regulating the complex interdependent system of organs. Changes in variables such as body temperature and fluid balance set off a series of processes aimed at returning the body to its original balance.

‘The homeostatic definition of stress: A condition where expectations, whether genetically programmed, established by prior learning, or deduced from circumstances, do not match the perception of the environment. This discrepancy between what is observed or sensed and what is expected or programmed elicits patterned responses.’

Still in danger

Let´s get back to the threat of coming face to face with a crocodile. If the crocodile we see turns out to be a soft stuffed toy, we take a deep breath and laugh out in relief.

If, however, the threat is real and a fight is unavoidable, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis or HTPA axis) is activated after the first surge of adrenaline subsides. The HPA axis keeps the sympathetic nervous system up and running as long as needed, until the fight is over.

This adrenal cortex produces hormones that contribute to the release of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that has several functions, including the controlling of the blood sugar level during stress reaction. The hormonal effects induced by the adrenal cortex are called indirect stress responses as they work through the bloodstream. The effects of these responses take place within 20-30 seconds. In contrast, the immediate stress responses described in the beginning of this article are induced by the sympathetic nervous system and visible in a few seconds.

Recovery from a stress reaction

When the threat has been removed and the brain no longer perceives the environment as dangerous, the frontal cortex gets a message of ‘alarm cancelled’. The high levels of reaction by the sympathetic nervous system come down and the amygdala makes the parasympathetic nervous system return the body to its normal relaxed state. The fight-or-flight response is over.

The body needs about 20 minutes to physically recover from an acute stress reaction. An adrenaline surge impacts our bodies up to an hour form reaction. The release of hormones by the adrenal cortex started later and thus also last longer. The production of cortisol will cease too once the danger has passed, and consequently the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems is attained.

Our bodies can uphold a stress reaction for a very long time. Humans are built to face threats and fight for their lives, normally in rapidly escalating situations that are also over quickly. Activation and preparedness to attack are normal reactions, as well as excitement and joy of victory.

Multitasking, taxes, interests, tormenting colleagues, lost phones and broken household appliances – these were non-existent in the early days of the human species. The problem is that we cannot turn off the surge of adrenaline when our attacker is a phone bill.

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 

The picture and information about Walter Cannon 

 

Moodmetric at Emotion Hack Day

 

Emohackkollaasi

The University of Helsinki celebrated its 375th anniversary with the Helsinki Challenge competition, that was launched in 2014.

The competion received more than 140 registrations, and after a long selection process – including startup-type pitching –  the winner was selected at the end of 2015.

NEMO – Natural Emotionality in Digital Interaction,  received €250,000 for realising the team’s idea: to add empathy to the internet.

Digital systems are not designed to consider emotions. As a result, the tools we have for expressing our emotions online are severely lacking in quality. This in turn inhibits empathy, the mechanisms that allow people to understand each other, connect and collaborate.

The research team including Katri Saarikivi, Tommi Makkonen and Valtteri Wikström have a huge task in front of them. Part of their project is to include others with events like the Emotion Hack Day, that Moodmetric was also invited to participate.

The event took place simultaneously in Helsinki and Montreal, and gathered talented people from all work backgrounds to spend 24 hours to generate ideas around digitalizing emotions.

hackdaybegin2

Moodmetric sponsored the event with the Moodmetric rings and SDKs for teams interested in using GSR in their project:

‘It is always fun to work with a new wearable technology and think of how it can be leveraged in every day life. Also, working with a company that takes pride in making the data interface easy to work with is refreshing, since it allows us to focus on the creative aspects, instead of the device interface.’  -André

The submissions are one step towards online presence – with emotions.