In my last blog post on stress reduction, I provided a link to some “diagnostic” tools that can give you an idea of where you’re at in regards to the effects of stress on your life. If you used one or more of those tools, I’d love to hear any feedback you might have for me.

Staying with the metaphor I’ve used previously, in this post I’ll attempt to describe what happens when your “engine thermometer” is in “the red zone.” Read the scenario in the following paragraph and see if you can relate to what this might look like.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were so stressed or anxious that your brain just didn’t seem to engage? You may have found that you weren’t thinking clearly, perhaps making inexplicable mistakes, even having your brain completely freeze up? Maybe a time when you experienced test anxiety? You know, when you were trying hard to dig for answers your brain had hidden in there “somewhere,” but you couldn’t find where that “somewhere” was?

It turns out there’s an explanation for that! And, I find it extremely fascinating to learn why. It’s because “somewhere” is “offline.” The prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the higher executive operating system of the brain. It’s used for problem solving, impulse control, and accessing memory. When the stress response is in full swing, it’s as though the PFC gets hijacked by the survival part of the brain because it’s screaming at us to run for cover in response to a perceived danger.

That’s helpful knowledge to have. If we know what’s occurring, equipped with the right tools, we can do something about it. Here’s something else to know; something rather alarming.

With all the major advances in neuroscience we now know chronic stress is not only harmful on the body, but on the brain itself.  Research shows that the prefrontal cortex, the most highly developed region of the brain is also the “most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure” (Arnsten, A. 2009). Research also shows chronic stress  actually causes detrimental architectural changes to neuron structure and their ability to make networking connections (Hains et al., 2009, Liston et al., 2006Radley et al., 2005, Seib & Wellman, 2003, Shansky et al., 2009). In simplified terms, the chemical environment needed for brain signals to make their normal connections in the PFC, is altered by stress hormones, which impairs their ability to function.

That’s what is happening when your “engine’s thermometer” is in “the red zone.” That’s why it’s so important to do something about it. Please look for my next post which will contain suggestions for ways you can bring that temperature back down to an optimum level.  

In my last blog regarding the importance of awareness for stress reduction, I used the analogy of what’s required for maintaining a vehicle so it provides us with reliable transportation. To keep the metaphor going, I’m sharing some “engine diagnostics” I use in my practice when assessing clients for stress.

Before we go further, keep in mind that self-assessments are rather like taking your pulse, temperature, or perhaps even a snapshot. They are meant to see where you’re at right now; they’re meant to measure something. In this case, to measure stress and how it may be affecting your life. As you’ll read, if you choose to use the link below, the test scores on the self-assessments aren’t giving you a diagnosis or a way to treat any diagnosis. They are solely meant as a tool to help you break things down and get a better view of what may be going on so that you can act to change things if you want to.

If you decide to use the link here:

https://www.nysut.org/~/media/files/nysut/resources/2013/april/social-services/socialservices_stressassessments.pdf?la=en you’ll find, in addition to the “Frequency of Symptoms” chart, three different assessments 1.) Perceived Stress Scale 2.) The Ardell Wellness Stress Test 3.) Stress Coping Resources Inventory: A Self-Assessment. I only use the Frequency of Symptoms and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS), but it’s up to you if you take one or take them all. You’re in the driver’s seat.

If you find that you experience a good deal of the symptoms related to stress, and/or a high score on the PSS, I urge you to contact your Primary Care Provider or other health provider as well as consulting with a mental health professional to help you incorporate some essential strategies and practices for regaining and maintaining balance and good health.

As I’ve mentioned in my previous blogs, a large portion of the stress we experience depends on how we perceive an event. If we can get a handle on our view of something, we can bring our “temperature gauge” back down into a normal range.  Often times, it’s as simple as altering our expectations or thoughts about something. Once we shape those expectations and thoughts into something more fitting, and get a more accurate sense of what we’re all “stressed out” about, we can alleviate a lot of trouble.

In my next post on stress reduction, which will likely be the final in the series, I’ll provide some more information on what happens in the brain when you experience a spike in your “stress thermometer” and what you can do to bring that “temperature” back down into the optimal range for best performance.

As with any meaningful change to occur, a person first has to be aware of the need for change. After all, why would you want to put time and energy into changing something that’s working fine the way it is, or at least, fine enough the way it is? The funny thing is, other people can often spot how we would benefit from changing something a lot more readily than we can see it ourselves. That statement could easily segue into a different blog about the power of healthy relationships, but I’ll save that for another time.

So, back to stress. In addition to becoming aware of something needing to change, a person also needs to know why that change is important, and finally, how to affect change; how to adopt new ways of being that will be benefit them.

First, let’s talk about stress awareness. Maybe you are fully aware. You realize how stress is effecting you without anyone pointing it out. On the other hand, you could be like so many others who are used to the heightened state of stress they’re in. They’ve learned to live with it. They’ve powered on, pushed it out of awareness, perhaps been numbing it with alcohol, or minimizing it in some other way in order to adapt.

So let’s say you’re not sure how stress affects you. How would you know if you need to reduce your stress level? Let’s start with cues from others. Has anyone told you that you seem stressed? Maybe you’ve just gone to your doctor with an ailment and learned your problem is directly related to stress, and you’d better do something about it before it gets worse! Or maybe a significant other is telling you that your stress level is negatively impacting your relationship and something needs to give!

By using the analogy of driving a vehicle, I’d like to illustrate how awareness is critical in maintaining good health by keeping our stress level in check. Let’s say you’re a driver that isn’t aware that periodic engine service is integral to your car’s performance. The car salesman didn’t tell you anything about adding oil and the likes. He probably assumed you knew everything a car owner needs to know already.

You don’t know much about cars, but you do know you have to fuel up when the gas gauge is low. Since you haven’t learned otherwise, no wonder you think refueling is the only requirement for your ride providing you with reliable transportation. You don’t know about adding or changing oil, engine coolant, etc. That lack of knowledge actually works for quite a while. Everything is A-Okay until these lights start appearing on the dash. You have no idea what’s going on, so you drive on. You continue to put gas in your tank when it’s low. Then these weird noises start up. Finally, the car breaks down, leaving you stranded on your way to somewhere important.

In the same way we need to be aware that a vehicle needs regular maintenance in addition to putting gas in the tank, we need to be aware what goes into maintaining optimum health, which includes being proactive about stress management.

It also helps to know why it needs to change, (if we don’t add oil, engine coolant, brake fluid, etc. things will not end well). And finally, we need to know how to do things differently than we’ve always done before (take the car in for regularly scheduled maintenance).  In this way, meaningful change (behavior modification which facilitates reliable transportation) can actually happen.

Unlike that ill-informed car owner who learned a hard lesson by breaking down on the way to somewhere important, you can take steps to prevent ending up on the side of the road, so to speak. In my next blog in this series, I’ll share an “engine diagnostic” tool for your use. Let’s hope your “check engine light” isn’t flashing, but if it is, at least you’ll be aware of what needs to change and why it’s important to change, so that you can then learn how to change it.

Want to go more in-depth about how to maintain yourself in top-notch condition? I’d love to sit down with you, learn what’s contributing to your stress level, and share practical strategies to put in place for navigating through stress producing situations. Don’t hesitate to call me at 503 410-4600 or email me today. Until then, wishing you safe travels!

Has there ever been a time in your life, perhaps in your childhood, when you experienced a feeling of pure safety and a profound sense of peace? A feeling that everything was right with the world and you didn’t have a single care in it?

You might have been out-of-doors, feeling a soft breeze on your skin and soaking in the beauty of nature. Maybe it was a time when you were visiting a doting grandparent that made you feel like you were the focus of their delight and affection. If a particular instance doesn’t come to mind right away, ponder the place you go to feel most alive and refreshed. Is it the beach? Maybe it’s hiking a mountain trail, where you are swept away in awe of the magnitude and beauty that surrounds you. 

Picture yourself in that place. Stressful thoughts can’t intrude. You feel calm. The temperature is perfect and you feel just right. The breath in your lungs starts softening, slowing, deepening. You notice the tense muscles in your neck and back loosing, the knot in your stomach gently coming undone. Your mind and body are relaxed, totally at ease, becoming nourished, satisfied.

As you continue to breathe deeply and picture yourself in the safe place you’ve been to or would like to be, use your senses to highlight the experience of it. Notice what you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. If you’re sitting on the beach, start naming all the things you see, like the crashing waves along the shore, the seagulls soaring, children building a sandcastle or flying a kite, boats sailing past. Next, imagine all the sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings associated with being in that place. Feel the warmth of the sand as you bury your toes. Smell the sea air and taste the salt brine. Hear the children’s laughter and the pounding of the surf.

Enjoy the calm you feel in your safe place and continue visualizing yourself there as long as feels good to you. Remember, you can go back here in your mind’s eye anytime, anywhere when you want to take a break from troublesome thoughts and feelings associated with stress. This is a helpful practice you can adopt for not only stress management, but for self-care as well. It’s something nice you can do for yourself.

If you’re a sceptic and find yourself balking at the suggestion to try the exercise described above, I encourage you to read on about what happens when stress, particularly chronic stress is not managed.

When we experience a high amount of stress, our brains interpret that in the same way as if we were encountering actual physical danger. “The fight-or-flight” response (a very good thing) equips us to respond quickly in getting us out of harm’s way. The stress response system activates a flood of hormones, primarily cortisol and adrenaline, which has an immediate effect on the body. Heightened glucose levels increase heart rate, and blood flows to the extremities, equipping the body to respond to immediate threat. When the danger has passed, hormone levels return to normal, (Alison Caldwell, PhD. brainfacts.org).

Unfortunately, since the fear center in our brains (amygdala and limbic system) can’t differentiate between stress from clear and present danger, chronic stress can develop if not kept in check. When stress becomes chronic, the stress response system is working overtime (a very bad thing). Those same hormones that are so important in getting us out of dangerous situations can lead to all kinds of problems. Trouble sleeping, digestive problems, weakened immune system, (Alison Caldwell, PhD.), high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes, to name a few (mayoclinic.org).

You just read how the brain communicates with the body, but did you know that in much the same way, the body has the ability to send communication signals to the brain? In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, renowned trauma expert, Bessel Van Der Kolk teaches that the body plays an important role in turning off the fight or flight response in the brain.  This is a simplified version of how it works: When the body, especially the visceral organs are calm, communication traveling through the vagal nerve lets the brain know it doesn’t need to be on high alert anymore. It says “You’re safe.” If you’re not in any immediate danger, yet are experiencing the associated symptoms described above (rapid heartbeat, tense or trembling muscles, etc.) doing exercises such as the one you just read about, produce calmness in the body and have an immediate effect on the survival part of your brain.

Let me leave you with this as I wrap up these thoughts on stress management:

  1. Stress is a part of life, but it does not need to rule your life and make you sick.
  2. Stress is generated by negative perceptions of certain situations, so a great deal of our stress can be reduced if we develop a healthier way of looking at things. For example, one person could find exploring a new city as exhilarating and energizing, when another person would find it nerve-racking and exhausting.
  3. The safe place visualization described above is just one of many strategies you can put in place to bring your stress levels down.
  4. Stress can effectively be managed through behavioral modifications, such as physical exercise, deep breathing, and mindfulness exercises.
  5. If you’d like to learn more, I have so much good information and plenty of strategies to share. Don’t let another day go by with chronic stress in the driver’s seat. I encourage you to reach out for help so you can take charge of what’s within your control and start doing practical things for a healthier, happier you.