Stress; Our Perception, Oxytocin, and Nervous System.
There’s a study that tracks 30,000 American adults for eight years, and they started by asking people, how much stress have you been experiencing for the past year, they also ask if you believe that stress is harmful to your health?
They then use public death record to find out who passed away; people who experience a lot of stress past year has a 43% increased risk of dying, but that was only true if they believe that stress is harmful to their health. On the other side, people who experience much stress, but did not view stress is harmful to our body, had the lowest risk of dying much like those who suffer very little stress. In fact, over the eight years of tracking death, 182 000 of American dies prematurely not from stress, but from the believes that stress is bad for you! That is an estimation of about 20 000 death per year, just from our perception. Studies have shown that when you change your mind about stress, you can change our body responds to stress, all controlled by our nervous system. Your body is energized, and preparing you, to meet the challenge, it pumped the heart harder, to help us takes in more oxygen for the brain (1).
In another study conducted at Harvard University, researchers put participants in a stressful situation, but they were told to view stress as an energizer for the body to help meet the challenge. They were taught that the pounding heart and the rapid breathing is normal, as these supply more oxygen to the brain. As a result, they were less stressed out, less anxious, more confident. However, the fascinating part is their physical stress response. While their heart was beating hard, their blood vessels stayed relaxed. As for those who have the perception that stress is harmful to their body, researchers found that their blood vessels constrict - part of the reason why chronic stress may lead to cardiovascular disease like heart attack, angina or stroke.
Similarly, in the moment of joy and courage, our heart is pumping hard, but our blood vessels remain relaxed. This difference in biological changes could be the difference between people that had a stress-induced stroke or heart attack at their 50s, than those who live well up until their 90s.
The new stress studies reveal that the way we perceive stress matters (1).
Another misconception we usually view stress is that stress isolates us from everyone else, on the contrary, it makes us social.
Oxytocin (also known as the cuddle hormone) is a neurohormone, it fine tunes our brain social instinct, it primes us, to do things that strengthens close relationships. Oxytocin also makes us crave for more physical contact, with our friends and family, it increases our empathy, and it even makes us more willing to help and support people we care about.
However, most of us do not realize; Oxytocin is a stress hormone! There’s a part of our brain called the pituitary gland that pumps this hormone out as a stress response. It triggers the stress response just like adrenaline hormone that makes our heart pound.
When our brains release oxytocin, it is a stress response. It is motivating us to seek support, and it’s nudging us to tell people we love how we feel, instead of keeping it bottled inside. Our stress response is indirectly telling us that when somebody is struggling, we should be supporting each other.
When life is difficult, our stress response compels us to be surround ourselves with the people who care.
So oxytocin is a natural anti-inflammatory, it helps the body to stay relax, and most importantly, oxytocin helps our heart tissue to regenerate from damages, it strengthens our heart.
So all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support.
So when we reach out to others under stress, our body releases more of these stress hormones, oxytocin, our heart becomes healthier, and we recover faster from stress. Our stress response has a built-in mechanism, govern by our nervous system, for stress resilient, and that mechanism is human connections (1).
As such, our optimal well-being and health are deeply associated with our nervous system.
Our physical well-being (spinal alignment), affects our psychological well being (perception of stress), and hence our physical stress response (Oxytocin release). As much as we now know that human interactions and connections reduce stress, the biomechanical and physical well-being of our body allows us to live a better quality of life (1).
1) McGonigal, Kelly. “Transcript of “How to make stress your friend” Kelly Mcgonigal: How to Make Stress Your Friend. TED, June 2013. Web. 27th May 2018.