Our body’s own anti-dote to stress

Renate Wassenberg
18 Feb, 2022


Stress is like a virus: it is contagious and it affects our brain chemistry. Fortunately, we all have the antidote to stress.

This article is about what you can do to build stress resilience, change your perception of the stressor AND increase your levels of “Oxytocin” (one of the “happy hormones”).

Our body’s natural response to stress

When you experience something frightening or stressful, it immediately affects your body. We all know the stress symptoms: heart rate increases, breathing accelerates, sweating, muscles tensing up, trembling, skin getting less blood flow (turning pale), intestines have reduced blood circulation (feeling nauseous), feeling less pain, more focused and less nuanced in your way of thinking/acting (more “black and white”).  

Adrenaline

All these bodily responses to stress are regulated by adrenaline. A substance produced by the kidneys (the adrenal cortex) after they receive a signal from the brain. Adrenaline shoots through your body like a spear and makes sure the body is ready to fight or flight.Imagine you are a deer and you see a lion. In a split second your body is ready to flee (your brain has quickly assessed that fighting is pointless).These stress reactions are crucial for survival. In our current existence there are far fewer real life-threatening situations like these (though there are, for example, in traffic). However, the same stress reactions occur when you think there is a lion or you think of something terrifying (for example, while watching a scary movie). To your body it is just as real and it releases adrenaline the same way. Adrenaline remains in your body for about an hour or two. This is why it is often hard to fall asleep after you have been working out late at night, watched a scary movie or had an intense conversation.

Cortisol

Another substance that has a lot to do with stress is cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone that is released when you have chronic stress. It is like adrenaline, but it comes on a little slower and stays active much longer. Cortisol causes actual changes in the body. Prolonged stress (like living in a war zone, very high work pressure, uncertain future, prolonged relationship problems) causes your heart rate to remain high, your breathing to be shallow & rapid and your muscles to be tense for a long time. This can lead to dizziness, difficulty concentrating and pain. Chronic stress has a direct impact on stomach and intestinal cells and can cause constipation or even diarrhea. Cortisol causes the immune system to be suppressed. This means that the body is less protected against bacteria and viruses (and therefore you are more susceptible to catching colds, for example). Another disadvantage of cortisol is that it causes more fat storage. The fat that sits around the belly is often the result of chronic stress and cortisol. It is precisely this fat that is the unhealthiest and causes a strong elevation of cholesterol in the blood and causes the major health risks such as cardiovascular disease.

Preventing the body’s stress responses – building stress resilience

Our body has different ways of dealing with stress. When you regularly encounter small stressful situations, your body gets used to it and gets trained in coping with stress. You can train yourself in coping with stress by seeking out situations that are somewhat challenging to you (for example, taking cold water showers) and noticing that you were able to handle them (building confidence). It is important that you have (a bit of) confidence that you can meet the challenge (or it will only be stressful to your body). A few other examples are doing a test, a sports competition, watching a scary movie, changing environments, or taking up a new hobby. When you face uncomfortable situations with confidence, you are training your stress system.

Interpreting stressful situations differently – changing the way you see the stressor

What is stressful for one person does not necessarily apply to another. We all have different backgrounds and experiences. These previous experiences may make us interpret things as “scary” and avoid them. If you have ever been startled by a dog’s barking, chances are that a dog’s barking may still startle you. Sometimes things feel scary in your body even though you know they are not dangerous. Learning about your ‘structure of interpretation’ and possibly adapt new ways of interpreting, are ways you can help yourself.

Learned coping – is it even a real stressor to you?

How other people deal with stressful situations (especially your parents) also has a big influence on how you deal with a stressful situation. You can copy fears and avoid certain situations thatothers are fearing. You expect them to be dangerous and/or threatening but you have never actually felt that danger or threat. Exposing yourself to these “perceived threats” (in structured steps), may give you the chance to learn to what extend your fear was unknowingly copied.

Ways to reduce stress in your body – what you can do to reduce the effects of long exposure to stress

Besides learning how to build stress resilience, changing how you view the stressor and dealing with the stressor itself (i.e. solve the problem), there are other things you can do to reduce your cortisol level (long exposure to stress):

Oxytocin

There is another hormone your body produces, that can be seen as the “antidote to stress”. It helps increase your body’s recovery, strengthen your immune system, lower your heart rate, and improve your sleep. This substance is called Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone”.

It is produced mostly during physical contact with someone you trust, like when you hug a loved one. Oxytocin is also produced by certain positive thoughts feelings, like when you think of a fun time you had or a vacation you are looking forward to. Taking care of a pet or someone you care about, also helps to produce oxytocin. Certain conscious and attentive actions linked to your self-care or care for a loved one, like enjoying the sunshine, doing a relaxation exercise, a good cappuccino, doing yoga, a good book, having a laugh, or giving/receiving a compliment, can also produce oxytocin.

A few tips

Although it sounds very simple, generating oxytocin is not easy. People with chronic pain, for example, are often discouraged by the many setbacks (while treating their pain) and may even a be little bitter. Because of the pain and emotional suffering, it becomes increasingly difficult to enjoy anything and physical contact my not be considered as pleasant. Also, as soon as you hold “an agenda” behind all the activities (as mentioned above) and the body feels forced to fight the pain, it will see it as a stress task (and produce adrenaline) instead of a recovery task (and produce oxytocin).

A mental health counselor can help you build a plan on how to stop fighting your pain, how to be less self-critical, how to build stress resilience, how to change your interpretation on your stressors, how to live in and enjoy the moment, how to create me-time, etc. But you should know that you have the power within you to increase your own levels of oxytocin and make yourself feel better.

Source: Dr. A.J. Engers

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