How can intelligent and ‘normally constituted’ individuals, in intense and/or chronic stress situations, lose their composure and become aggressive, elusive, or powerless?
It’s simple: they unconsciously provoke a DIY-lobotomy! (read: Do-It-Yourself) Exactly the actual recipe for ‘distress’ ;-)
We had the opportunity to talk a bit about ‘distress’ before, but let us recall the definition of stress for the sake of discussion: ‘Stress is body’s neurobiological reaction to a stimulus (Stress trigger or stressor) perceived as danger, aggression, or threat to its well-being, equilibrium, and stability.’
In this operational definition there are three key words:
- ‘reaction’: referring to a reaction of your our ‘automatic pilot’ driving in 3F mode: Fighting (attacking), Fleeing (escaping), or Freezing (simulating death). Such a reaction is innate, hard-wired into your inner system (you generally do not plan it; it occurs spontaneously) and it is basically not only normal but also necessary for survival;
- ‘stimulus’: an event or a stressor triggering the reaction and which can be linked to three types of danger: physical, emotional, or relational;
- ‘perceived’: and this is actually the most powerful word to keep in mind, because you see, a stimulus does not have to be dangerous in reality in order to cause Stress, what matters is that you believe that it is! Concretely, this implies that different people will have different reactions to the same stimulus compared to yours, depending on their own personal perceptions.
This perceptual element allows providing an answer to the following question: “How can a rational being, who believes to be able to intellectually manage any situation, find himself, because of external events, subject to one of the 3F reactions in an emotional and irrational way?”
The answer lies in our understanding of the unconscious functions of your physiology which is governed by two autonomous (read: involuntary) systems:
- The sympathetic (or orthosympathetic) system: is responsible for homeostasis (internal dynamic equilibrium) and the Fighting, Fleeing, or Freezing reactions, including related neural and hormonal expressions (such as cortisol secretion) as well as resulting heart, muscles, and breathing patterns. In short, it regulates all the activities requiring efforts;
- The parasympathetic system: is responsible for functions such as digestion and reproduction, and has an important impact on immunity. It regulates physical activities involved in rest, recovery, and well-being through neurotransmitters and hormones (such as DHEA).
Whenever you are faced with a danger, be it physical (somebody or something attacking you), emotional (sadness after a loss), or relational (conflictual relationship in the workplace), your orthosympathetic system takes over since it is autonomous and partly controlled by the reptilian and the emotional brains which are faster than your cerebral rational brain! Through the release of a series of neurotransmitters and hormones (adrenaline, cortisol, noradrenaline, etc.), the orthosympathetic system induces chain reactions in your body, provoking the 3F reactions. These are all muscular and muscles need energy to execute ‘reflex’ actions.
Your heart is then called upon to pump blood to channel enough oxygen to muscles, which is possible thanks to increased heart rhythm. In fact, as the volume of blood in our bodies is fixed and cannot be increased to support the need of muscles executing a 3F reaction, your body (or rather your orthosympathic system) starts directing blood flow to parts it deems critical in terms of survival and automatically reduces blood flow towards organs that are consuming a lot of energy and which are deemed not critical to survival.
This process also partially inhibits the parasympathetic system, restricting thus blood flow necessary to the normal functioning of other systems: digestion, immunity, reproduction, skin renewal, etc.
And this is not the end of it! As a matter of fact, the activation of the orthosympathic system results in a chaotic Heart Rate Variability (HRV, change in interval between each heartbeat), and this chaos is fed back to the brain via the vagus nerve. Research has shown that if stress is high and HRV very chaotic, the impact on the prefrontal neocortex is dangerously similar to the consequences of head injuries:
- Memory loss and shortened attention span;
- Difficulties in dealing with planning activities;
- Difficulties in managing emotions and relating with others.
- Impulsive and increased risk-taking behaviors;
- Aggressiveness and socially inappropriate behaviors;
To put it simply, your brain goes through a ‘DIY lobotomy’ (patience, I will be explaining more about this shortly ;-)).
You might be wondering about the usefulness of such mechanisms. Well, it’s actually pretty simple: for your orthosympathic system which is a little bit primitive, if you are dead then it’s useless to think, digest, fight illness, etc. and as such, it’s better to shut down all superior voluntary and sophisticated cerebral systems to channel energies towards muscles in charge of physical survival.
The intelligent individual “master of the world” that you think you are can thus become, in a matter of seconds, an aggressive (Fighting), elusive (Fleeing), or powerless (Freezing) individual, depending on the 3F reaction that your orthosympathic system chooses as the most appropriate to the context and based also on your chronic habits… :-o
Not very cheerful right? And yet, you can still consciously avoid becoming a caveman ;-)
But before telling you how (in another post), I need to tell you a strange little story of pendulums, synchronization of vibration phenomena, and changes in heart rate coherence (HRV – Heart Rate Variability) to deepen your understanding the neurobiological mechanisms that contribute in your involuntary ‘DIY lobotomy’ when you are exposed to a stressful environment ;-)
The phenomenon of ‘entrainment’ was discovered in the 17th century by Christiaan Hyugens, the inventor of the pendulum clock and the first to observe and study autonomous synchronization of pendulums. It has been proved that each time a vibratory or oscillatory phenomenon happens, the signal emitted by the most powerful oscillator ‘entrains’ all others which follow its lead and synchronize to it.
Actually, your body is composed of cells which vibrate and all your organs oscillate at a given frequency. The heart is the most powerful vibrating organ in your body: compared to your brain, the heart produces 50 times more electricity and an electromagnetic field 5,000 more powerful! As such, all your body synchronizes to your heart which, literally, gives the tempo and sets the beat, pushing all other systems to synchronicity and performance Alignment. Thanks to the ‘entrainment’ effect, HRV (Heart Rate Variability) greatly influences the functioning of all your organs, starting by your brain and enteric organs.
A coherent HRV is also important because you do not have one brain but three! In fact, advances in neurobiology allow us to confirm what ancestral wisdom has been saying all along: you have a brain located in your stomach and guts, as well as another one in your heart, each with its own neural circuitry (more than 100 million neurons in the guts and more than 40 thousand neurons in the heart). These organs are thus constantly communicating with the ‘central’ brain in your head through hormones and neurotransmitters, mainly serotonin for the guts (happiness hormone) and oxytocin for the heart (love and bonding hormone), as well as through your autonomous nervous systems.
This is why your prefrontal neocortex ends up almost shut down (while its blood pressure is stabilized to avoid a stroke) and why your reasoning capabilities become reduced: under intense and/or chronic stress, your HRV is so chaotic that you are almost in a ‘DIY-lobotomy’ state!
Since the prefrontal neocortex’ ability to access all its resources and to function properly in conjunction with your other two brains is greatly diminished given the ‘entrainment’ phenomenon, ensuring a coherent HRV is thus key to the proper functioning of all the other organs.
In my next post, I will talk about the neurobiological interactions of hormones and neurotransmitters which explain the behavior and performance observed by Selye under ‘eustress’ and ‘distress’ states. To do so, I will be exposing you to some of the research conducted by Stephen Elliot, Dr. Alan Watkins and the HeartMath Institute on how to influence your cardiac coherence and achieve Flow condition.