Many people (including me) come to mindfulness to reduce anxiety and stress.
The following excerpt from Better with Age: The Ultimate Guide to Brain Training by Phyllis Strupp, colleague and mindfulness practitioner, explains some of the behind-the-scenes effects of stress in the brain and body, and the process by which mindfulness tames stress.
Distinguishing Gain and Loss
No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I want to be a loser today.” Our brains are always on the hunt for our next gain, big or small, to make us feel like a winner! Pursuing gains and avoiding losses is our brain’s top priority. To fulfill this mission, our brain wields a very powerful tool: the stress-response system.
When the opportunity to score a gain (pleasure) or avoid a loss (pain) arises, an emotion is triggered. Biochemical signals guide our brain to respond adaptively, given our personality, memories, goals, perception, and values related to the current situation. To generate resources for quick action, our brain has a hotline to the body: the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. By quickly releasing the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream, the HPA axis activates the stress-response system, ordering the heart and lungs to work harder and the digestive and immune systems to slow down.
Once the mind signals that things around us have settled down, the brain flips the switch to settle things down within us: the vagus nerve, shown in the figure. This cranial nerve connects the brain to the body’s organs to deactivate the stress-response system and activate the relaxation response. The calming effects of the vagus nerve allow the brain and body to return to their happy place (homeostasis), the optimal state for enjoying good health. We can deliberately activate the vagus nerve’s soothing activity at any time through deep breathing.
As Phyllis points out, the Vagus nerve is the main nerve involved in returning the body to a relaxed state.
Think of a car flying down the freeway at 90 miles an hour. That’s the stress response, and the Vagus nerve is the brake. When you’re stressed, your foot is lodged on the gas pedal. When you take slow, conscious breaths, you’re engaging the brake.
Through mindfulness, you become more adept at pumping the brakes. First, by recognizing that you’re stressed! It may sound obvious, but many people tolerate large doses of stress. Even though you may be fuzzy-headed, wiped out, and on edge, you may have grown accustomed to pushing ahead without skillfully addressing your feelings.
With awareness, you can implement powerful practices that wake up the vagus nerve and return the body to a balanced state. Here, you regain access to your full capacities for flourishing in every aspect of life.
If your intentions for 2016 center around implementing more skillful ways to rest, recharge, and recover from stress, join us for an upcoming Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction class in Central Phoenix or Cave Creek.
[Excerpt from Better with Age: The Ultimate Guide to Brain Training by Phyllis Strupp
YouTube book video for Better with Age]
About the Author
Phyllis T. Strupp, MBA is an award-winning author and brain coach, speaking to audiences around the U.S. on how brains and lives can get better with age. Her background includes a “Brain Research in Education” Certificate from the University of Washington in Seattle. Before establishing Brain Wealth, she had a 30-year business career, including an MBA in finance from Columbia University and 20 years as a financial representative with Northwestern Mutual. She lives in Carefree, AZ with her husband Peter. For more information: www.phyllisstrupp.info