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The Chronic Stress Response

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Acute versus chronic Stress Response

An acute stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command centre, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.

The hypothalamus is a bit like a command centre. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the "rest and digest" response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren't aware of them. In fact, The wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain's visual centres have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That's why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the "gas pedal" — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the "brake" — then dampens the stress response.

Chronic Stress Response

Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.

Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body's energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain. For example, cortisol increases appetite, so that people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases storage of unused nutrients as fat.

Fortunately, people can learn techniques

to counter the stress response.

Transformative psychosomatic Therapies

Relaxation response: Abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualisation of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.

Physical activity: People can use exercise to stifle the buildup of stress in several ways. Exercise, such as taking a brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed, not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension. Movement therapies such as yoga, Tai Chi and Qi gong combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm.

Social Support: Confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions all provide a life-enhancing social net — and may increase longevity. It's not clear why, but the buffering theory holds that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them at times of chronic stress and crisis.

Understanding is power: Educating the person who is in pain about the relationship between the physical pain and their mindset and belief system at the root of the tension and pain is freeing them.and healing can start.

Somatic Release: Unresolved stress highjacks your body and your mind. The sensation that we are always under threat keep our muscular system and in particular our postural muscles under tension, creating stiffness. Muscles tension eventually creates muscle imbalances that in time will create a chain of event that can play havoc in the body : muscular pain, misalignment of our posture, wear and tears of the joints and spine, Inflammation, discs issues and eventually nerve issues.

The upstream psychological stress, people endure while battling with relentless chronic pain (such as fear of moving, anxiety, depression) seem to take precedence from the psychological stress or trauma that may be at the source of unresolved chronic pain in the first place. We tend to loose sight that the root cause is downstream.

Postural exercises

1. Breathing: is at the centre of the exercise rehabilitation program

2. Postural awareness and neuromuscular rehabilitation exercises: To become aware of the very muscles that are keeping us in a straight jacket and learning to release them and strengthen them is by itself empowering and healing. It seems to inform the brain that now everything is under control and it can let go of the “gas Pedal”.

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