The Synthesis Of STRESS

Everyone faces stress and to resolve that we have got to ask ourselves a couple of questions.

What is stress? – it is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you angry, frustrated or nervous. 

Events that take place in and around us, especially ones we have no control over, create stress. Stress is created by believing that the situation is something that I cannot change, it’s something on which I have no control over and it’s something which in my mind, will create a negative impact either on my life or the life of someone I love. One of the reasons we feel stress is because we imagine the worst possible outcome in the given situation. We may play several possible scenarios, and their negative outcomes in our head, all based on our beliefs or past experiences. Our helplessness in the situation makes us think of every possibility of what can go wrong. This causes the release of certain stress hormones, especially cortisol. The cortisol prepares our body for fight or flight and when we can take neither action we get caught in stress response. The active cortisol in the body does not get used and the body stays in a state of stress. At times the person can become very high strung and over a period of time this can lead to anxiety disorder.

What happens in our body and brain with stress? When we stress, even most recent stress, or a long-term issue with which we are stressed, it affects a part of the brain, which is the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for regulating our emotions, for self-control, for memory and learning. When we stress, we lose self-control and often resort to binge eating to which we call comfort food. When you tend to feel helpless, imagine the worst. Some of us go into binge eating, others can’t eat at all when stressed. Prolonged stress can lead to memory loss and difficulty in recall. It can also cause inflammation in the brain, making the brain more susceptible to health problems like dementia.

Of course we also know that a certain amount of stress is positive as it pushes you into action and that kind of stress can also lead you to achieve a lot. But we cannot generalize situations as stressful. What stresses me may not stress someone else. Of course there are situations, which are universally stressful, for example if you are in physical danger.

So how is it that a certain situation stresses one person and the other person is absolutely ok in that very same situation?This comes from and is directly linked to our past.

The past can mean two things:

1) The past that I experienced as a child. For instance, if my parents were very big on grades, and if that was a topic of stress in the house, then even as a grown up, any environment where I will be judged for my performance will give me stress. This is because my body and brain have to seek my parent’s approval, and even though I am an adult, any situation where my performance can cause the loss of approval of any authority figure, will cause me stress. Since parents are the first authority figures in our life, how I relate to them is how I will relate to other authority figures in society and this is a very unconscious process. So in my brain there is an association between performances, approval especially from an authority figure and stress. 

2) There is also the history of my ancestors that affects my response to so called stressful situations. There is an experiment done with mice. They were exposed to the smell of cherry blossoms. Every time they were exposed to that smell, they were also given a mild shock. When this was done a few times, the brain of the mice created an association between the smell and a stress response. Now as soon as the mice were exposed to the smell, their body went into a shock reaction without even being given the shock. So the smell and the physical response got hardwired in the brain. What was incredible that the next generation of these mice also responded to the smell with a stress response, even though they were never exposed to the smell shock cycle. They were also born with receptors in the brain, which made them more sensitive to this smell. So the brain of the mice adapted to this situation. This stress response to the smell could be seen over the next few generations. So what was experienced by the mice a few generations back (in this case they tested at least 3 generations) caused a stress response in future generations. Hence, it may be noted that the experience that caused stress in the great grandfather/ or great grandmother, was having a response in the great grand child, even though the child had never been exposed to that situation or stimulus directly. So my point is what is stressing you, may not necessarily be your own response but can be an inherited response to an event that was the cause of stress and anxiety to your grandparents or great grandparents.If you tend to have a generalized sense of anxiety, if you are overly stressed and are unable to handle your stress response, it is important to look into the events that occurred in the history of your family. It’s a very real possibility that you are carrying an inherited stress response from them.Most of us know little about our family history. Maybe the family history has pain or shame as part of it, or suppressed anger to a wrongdoing our ancestors could not stand up to or violence, which oppressed them, and so you have an inbuilt fear response to certain situations.

Our birth was only possible because our ancestors survived even the most painful experiences, be it war, colonization, suppression or slavery. The history of our family is passed from one generation to the next and lives in our cells and affects our responses without us being aware of it. 

We also need to remember that in spite of the events our grand parents / our great grandparents experienced, they made it. And we also carry that resilience and their ability to survive the worst. The next time you have a stress response, ask yourself whose stress am I carrying? Am I carrying a response I learned in my childhood? Who else responds like this? Maybe my response is a learned response from my parents. 

What words do I use to describe my stress and my feelings of anxiety? Is there a story hidden in those words? Just the realization in itself changes some dynamics inside of you. 

The next time you are stressed, ask yourself this – “is this mine?”

Ritu Kabra

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