Stress: two systems between mind and body
by Chiara Cosentino
Have you ever felt, during the challenges of your daily life, those unpleasant little sensations, like having cold and sweaty hands when you are about to meet the general manager?
Or the heart that beats so hard to confuse your thoughts, before an important speech at a meeting? Or the cracking voice at a public lecture? Well, if this is happening to you, it means that you are indeed a human being, that you have a stress response and that your body is functioning as intended. Because these “unpleasant” sensations are nothing more than the signal of the activation of a system in our body, which has allowed us, as a human race, to survive.
It is the Sympathetic Autonomic Nervous System.
This system is programmed to activate when we perceive a threat and its activation,
which modulates part of our “stress response”, is evolutionarily programmed to
put our body in the conditions of fight or flight, the only valid options when
we face a threat to our survival.
The pupils widen, to allow us to better visualize the ground and to identify the
evacuation routes, perspiration increases to decrease body temperature and better
withstand the effort, the heart beats faster to pump blood to the muscles, which in turn
strain to facilitate escape.
The stomach and intestines freeze and try to “unload” as much as possible to facilitate the
leakage, the throat muscles tighten to make shrill, inarticulate sounds that
can go as far as possible, we are less lucid because the blood is concentrated in the
muscles and not in the brain. After all, during an alarm you have to run away and you
secure, you will later take the time to reflect and analyze.
This activation should be short-lived. To light up, bring us to safety and
turn off afterwards. That was the original plan!
In the “flat” life of a homo Neanderthal (or indeed of any mammal), the
threats were relatively few, external, clearly visible. “The explosion
of activation” of his body, was very effective against them and, once the danger was avoided, was
programmed to turn off quickly, thanks to the activation of another system, reflecting the
first, which affects and envelops the same organs and functions: the Autonomic Nervous System
This other system is the one that, when activated, allows our body to slow down, digest,
to be “tender” and friendly. When activated, the pupils constrict, to allow
look better and more deeply at those around us, the heart slows down because it does not have to
pump only the blood necessary for regular physiological processes, the stomach and intestines
have time to digest, the muscles relax because they must not be ready to
trigger, the throat loosens, to modulate soft sounds, the blood reaches the brain and exchanges
with oxygen, allowing us to think long-term, to interpret, to design. These two
systems, at their full capacity, engage in an “activation dance” of one then the other,
in a magical dynamic balance that results in “well-being”.
So if this is working well from the “original prototype”, what’s the stick in the streets,
blocking the mechanism and causing us discomfort, making us feel stressed? The answer is
to be found in an “alteration of the harmony of this dance”. In our daily life,
external stimuli that we perceive as threatening have increased dramatically
exponential and come to upset us at any time of the day: a dispute with the
boss, an email that arrives just before dinner, the counter that holds the bank card when withdrawing
and the green number which is not active.
So what becomes central is the reaction we have to these stimuli. Negative thoughts
that creep in all the time, especially when we’re under pressure and have a
goal to achieve, images that come back, worries about the consequences of
our actions and those of others, feelings of guilt, a sense of duty, frustration,
anger, helplessness. A herd of predators that continually attacks us, without us
give us time to rest, to feel safe.
This causes our body to stay in a defensive position and in turn this is read by our
brain as proof of the tangible presence of the threat which, coming from within, is
impossible to fight and escape. And here begins the circle.
It is precisely this circle, the part of stress that makes us feel bad, that drains our
energies and makes us feel empty.
The most important journey we can take is the one that will allow us
to interrupt this cycle, returning stress to its original role: to keep us alive, to prepare us
to action, give us the right push to better achieve the goals we set ourselves