Stress Task Manager: What Processes Are Running?

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Being fired… Witnessing a crime… Getting bad medical news… Finding out you’re pregnant… The computer getting a virus… Coming into (big) money… Getting engaged… The laundry coming out pink… Being offered a new job… The pet running away… Getting lost in the woods… Losing the wallet… If any of these stressors have happened to you, then you are already very familiar with the way your body reacts to stress. Knowledge is power, and being familiar with our natural body reactions is conducive to a better handling of the situation. But what happens exactly at the moment of stress? Take the jump and find out.

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Stress Attacks!

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Good stress motivates and mobilizes to action. Bad stress, of the pathological kind, ambushes and attacks with vicious relentlessness. Its favorite areas of attack are self-esteem, self-assessment and analytical abilities as they relate to past experiences, present situations, and expected outcomes. When stress strikes, the past can become a repository of bad precedents, the present a bleak landscape of dangers, and the future a (seemingly) real possibility of annihilation. Sounds exaggerated? Yes,  when stress is at manageable levels. However, in the presence of a real or perceived grave stressor, one’s abilities to cope with or respond to the challenging situation can become severely impaired, leading to three possible outcomes: flight or running away from the stressor, fight or direct confrontation, or the glacial paralysis of freeze.

Can we prepare for a stressor of significance, e.g. a major financial loss, with any degree of success?  If so, what needs to happen before the stressor occurs? What mental/physical preparation can one make?

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Stress Software: Of Mice and Men

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Animals, and particularly rodents that are routinely used in   observations and experiments, tell us a lot of what we know about our own psychology. Rodents? How can a mouse or a rat know the first thing about what motivates and directs human reactions and behaviors? As a matter of fact, no rodent has yet provided any evidence of self-awareness or consciousness of the elevated kind, the sense of self that we attribute to ourselves and that is often used to explain why we do the things we do. And that is the very reason why rodents make such reliable exemplars of human psychology.

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Stresshack #2: Stressed by Stress?

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When stress hits, sometimes all bets are off and even the best loses it. That’s bad, right? Like, maybe, even… very bad? To be avoided, as in, cool is best (“I should be the picture of calm and I am anything but”)… Why can’t I react any better than this, one may ask. Or, why does my reaction need to be always this strong? The heart beat needle reaches the red zone, sweat breaks out, it’s hard to talk coherently, it’s like the world is ending this minute, muscles tense all over the body and the stomach cramps, adding to the misery… Often all this goes on mostly inside, while struggling to keep a semi normal appearance. Often, this goes on for a while, even a long while, while frantically working on a response that actually makes sense and addresses the stressor (“do I fight it, do I run, or am I frozen in place and can’t decide?”)

And when all of this occurs, and because it does occur this way (or worse), it adds to whatever stressor caused it to begin. The stress reaction becomes stressful in itself. It becomes a state of being, a condition, a problem of its own. So can anything be done to change this? Take the jump and find out.

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Stresshack #1: The Top 6 Job Stressors

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The top six on-going job conditions, thus excluding exceptional events such as a job loss, that may lead to significant stress are:

6. The structural and environmental conditions in which we must perform our tasks, which can range from mildly unpleasant to physically dangerous. There may also be noise, bad breathable air, overcrowding or constrictive body positions, such as prolonged standing or sitting or heavy lifting, or even too much typing. Degree of control we can have over these stressors: Often none. Perception vs. reality of the stressor: These often are legitimate and objective constraints that would stress anyone under the same circumstances.

5. Career concerns we may harbor over various aspects of the position we occupy, such as the security of the job itself, due to job-specific or industry/general economy threats; rapid changes in the job description or its requirements for which we may feel unprepared; unfulfilled desires of growth opportunities, such as advancement, promotion or change. Degree of control we can have over these stressors: Ranging from limited to significant. Perception vs. reality of the stressor: A fear-induced highly negative perception of the precariousness of the job can be a significant factor, and may not be commensurate to the objective reality of the threat.

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Stress Hardware Review: The Limbic System

Limbic-System The limbic system is the complex neuronal circuitry that controls emotional behavior and motivational drives. The good news: It comes preinstalled in your brain. The bad news: It controls not only behavior but also body temperature, the drive to eat and drink, and the ability to control body weight. The bottom line: Stressful emotions can set the limbic system on fire, causing overeating (or the opposite), sweating (or chills) and play funny tricks on the motivation to decide whether to fight the stressor, take flight from it or simply freeze in place. Let’s review this all-important structure in the management of stress.

Design

The limbic circuitry is located toward the front of the brain. The limbic system is comprised of numerous structures, the most important of which are the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the cortex, the cingulate gyrus, the striatum, the pallidum, the thalamus, and Meynert’s nucleus basalis.

Features

The limbic system closely regulates behavior, and more specifically it determines the body’s initial and instinctive reaction to emotional challenges that influences the individual’s ultimate response. For the difference between reaction and response, see this post.

In addition to its primary role in behavior control, the limbic system controls many internal conditions of the body, such as body temperature, concentration of the body fluids, and the impulse to eat and drink, and thus the ability to control body weight.

Since the regulation of these functions is located within the same structure that also processes the first impact of emotions, it is easy to see how a stressor can immediately be felt as a loss of appetite in some of us, or a craving for “comfort” food in others. This design of the system makes it more difficult to keep one’s cool (temperature is affected, too) and to make clear-headed decisions in the face of a serious emotional challenge—exactly when such ability would be needed the most!  Be that as it may, our natural endowment consists of a circuitry that handles the rational and the irrational at the same time and within the same structure, so one must make the best of it in the face of challenges and stressors that can wreak havoc even on the best fine-tuned system.

Technical Specifications (if you really want know all about it)

| References | The outer arc of the limbic system (also called the limbic gyrus) includes the subcallosal area, the cingulate gyrus, the isthmus of the cingulate gyrus, and the parahippocampal gyrus, including the uncus and subiculum. The subcallosal area includes a cluster of small septal nuclei that lie immediately anterior to the paraterminal gyrus and anterior commissure. The septal nuclei receive input from multiple midbrain nuclei, the substantia nigra, the CA1 region of the cornu ammonis, the subiculum, amygdala, lateral hypothalamus, cingulate gyrus, and mamillary bodies. Efferent fibers project to the entire hippocampal formation, the habenula, hypothalamus, thalamus, amygdala, mamillary bodies and the cerebral cortex.

For even more detailed information on the septal region of the limbic system see this article: Cavazos JE, Wang CJ, Sitoh YY, et al: Anatomy and pathology of the septal region. Neuroimag Clin NorthAm 1997; 7:67-78.

br-800epi The middle arc (also referred to as Broca’s intralimbic gyrus) consists of the paraterminal gyrus, the indusium griseum, and the hippocampus. The paraterminal gyrus is wedged between the septal nuclei and the anterior commissure. Posterior to the anterior commissure is the hypothalamus. The indusium griseum, extending from the paraterminal gyrus, consists of gray matter and white matter tracts named the medial and lateral longitudinal stria. The indusium griseum is closely applied to the superior surface of the corpus callosum. Posteriorly, it courses around the splenium and inferiorly merges with the tail of the hippocampus.

The mamillary bodies, fornix, alveus and fimbria form the inner arc. The alveus and fimbria are the major efferent fibers tracts of the hippocampus. Posteriorly, the fimbria form the crura of the fornix that continue upward deep to the splenium of the corpus callosum. As the two crura converge, a thin triangular sheet of fibers passes to the opposite side to form the commissure of the fornix. The crura merge as the body of the fornix, which continues forward along the inferior edge of the septum pellucidum and roof of the third ventricle. At the foramen of Monroe, the fornix divides into two columns which course inferiorly. Just superior to the anterior commissure, the columns divide into pre- and postcommissural tracts. The precommissural fibers connect to the septal nuclei and anterior hypothalamic nuclei. The postcommissural fibers continue inferiorly to end in the mamillary bodies.

Need still more details? See this comprehensive article: Sitoh YY, Tien RD: The limbic system: An overview of the anatomy and its development. Neuroimag Clin North Am 1997; 7:1-10.