Is your internal stress detector receiving the correct information?
Smoke detectors are designed to sound an alarm, whether a smoldering fire threatens your safety or toast is burning. Our amygdala — the region of the brain associated with emotional responses — is similar to a smoke detector. It can’t tell the difference between real and perceived stress.
When working with clients, I help them understand the functions of the nervous system and identify when their internal smoke detector responds to faulty information. Sometimes, heightened anxiety disguises the truth of the situation — it creates a ‘smoke screen’ that triggers our inbuilt alarm system. When we identify what alerts the emotional responses in our brain, we learn how to manage stress.
You may be familiar with the terms ‘fight, flight, freeze’ — how the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) reacts to the perceived presence of physical or psychological threats. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) returns the body to a relaxed state — this is the crucial ‘rest, digest, and repair’ response to stress.
Because these two systems offset each other, they help maintain a balanced well-being. However, constantly feeling stressed will trigger the brain and body to respond in a continuous SNS alert mode. Experiencing raised blood pressure, fatigue, depression, poor digestion, and weakened immune function may be symptoms of chronic stress. Activating our PSNS is achieved by breathing techniques, nature walks, meditative practices, and laughing — to name a few.
Living a stress-free life is unattainable. We need good stress — eustress — to achieve some tasks. Balancing our SNS and PSNS systems is attainable when we understand how our body serves us and how to avoid ‘distress’. Our brains can be retrained to respond to stress in a healthy way.
The presence of smoke does not always indicate a fire.
When you feel that quickened heartbeat or brain fog in a stressful moment, ask yourself, “Am I remembering to breathe? Am I responding to this situation with a healthy awareness?’’
Your well-being will thank you — mind, body, and soul.