Stress Hardware Reviews: The Hippocampus

clip_image001What brain structures rouse us from inactivity and set in motion our defense mechanisms when a stressor is perceived? Predictably, the brain’s older and more primordial area, the so-called animal brain, where the hypothalamus, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the septum area, the basal ganglia and the thalamus are located. These structures, collectively called the limbic system, are interconnected and work together to initiate motor and other functional activities of the brain that mobilize the body. In this post about stress hardware, we discuss the hippocampus.

Virtually any experience perceived by the five senses appears to cause the activation of at least some part of the hippocampus. The hippocampus in turn redistributes these sensory signals to the thalamus, the hypothalamus, and other parts of the limbic system. Thus, the hippocampus acts as an important switching center through which incoming sensory signals are retransmitted and initiate behavioral reactions for different purposes. Its importance has been demonstrated empirically: experimental artificial stimulation of the hippocampus can induce a wide variety of behavioral patterns such as pleasure, rage, passivity, or excessive sexual drive.

The cells of the hippocampus appear to be especially sensitive to the effects of various stressors. Although not directly involved in the stress response, its ventral regions appear to exercise a regulatory influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis activity and are also a primary target for elevated glucocorticoid levels. The glucocorticoid hormones owe their name to their important effects on blood glucose concentration, which is the principal source of energy of the human cell. They also regulate protein and fat consumption, and the utilization of carbohydrates to produce additional quantities of energy. Cortisol is the principal glucocorticoid. Read more

Stresshack #7: Just Enough Anxiety

K2fromBroadPeak Too much anxiety forces impulsive action. When the choice between fight or flight is invariably fight, personal power and sheer determination can make things happen. Hastily taking charge of the situation however can also be a sign of anxiety brought on by low self esteem, insecurity and fear of failure. Emotional decision making prompted by anxiety, anger, or fear often has the result of producing change but also fostering unpredictability and chaos.

Too much anxiety often sabotages a person’s achievements. There is no balance in the approach to problem-solving and either too much energy is devoted to the task, or inadequate resources are mustered. The drive toward success generates a pathological focus that can quickly lead to exhaustion. In some cases, the organism simply shuts down, in other cases it is maintained in operation through artificial means such as drugs or alcohol.

Too little anxiety creates an avoidance of challenges and a drive toward comfort.  Often these individuals are quite comfortable in true and tried approaches to problem-solving and are loath to try anything new. In many cases, a short and quick fix is applied to challenges, without much thought or conviction. Far from being healthy, too little anxiety lowers an individual’s guard against potential threats, physical or psychological, by instilling a false sense of security and of foolish invulnerability.

Just enough anxiety and we feel the right level of motivation toward change, while not losing sight of the need for adequate preparation, adequate rest, and balance. We accept the incontrovertible fact that too much or too little of anything, including anxiety, can impede learning, stunt growth, endanger health.  Striving for success is important, as are solving problems and facing challenges as they arise. The right dose of anxiety (the good stress that mobilizes our resources) is just what it takes to not only meet these demands, but to thrive.

Spirituality, Longevity and Stress Reduction

Michelangelo_Sistina_CreazioneDiAdamo A recent article published on Medscape Internal Medicine [i] reiterates research evidence showing that church attendance can affect well-being through social integration and support and that spiritual experiences that provide a sense of purpose and meaning may promote hope and positively influence depression and marriage satisfaction, reduce alcohol use and prevent drug abuse. Church affiliation may also be a safe haven to avoid stigmatization by society for certain conditions.

Although the evidence provided appears for the time as insufficient to effectively demonstrate a definitive link between better health, lower mortality and spirituality, nonetheless a tentative connection has been clearly established. In stress management, the presence or absence of hope for the future, the perception of available support (either human or preternatural), and the sense of belonging that goes with spirituality are accepted protective factors that can significantly reduce the chronicity and ill effects of stress. What does the research of the last ten years show? Read more

Successful Leadership: What Does It Take?

David_NapoleonSt-Bernard In reporting the results of a global survey, Michael Haid discusses the factors that contribute most to exceptional leadership performance. It turns out that it is not what leaders know, i.e. their skill set, but it is how they fit in their company’s culture, how they are motivated by opportunities within the organization, and how they interact with those around them that result in high performance. Read more

Research News: Stress and IVF

Klimt_1895_Love Researchers at the University of Aarhus in Denmark have uncovered preliminary evidence that appears to suggest a link between stress and the chances of success with in-vitro fertilization (IVF). Unlike other studies that focused on stress caused by infertility and the IVF treatment itself, this study[i] analyzed non-fertility-related, naturally occurring life stressors. Specifically, this research explored the association between IVF outcome and stressful life events during the previous 12 months. Read the study methods and results after the jump. Read more

eClass 1: A Primer on Stress

Stress results from an imbalance between demands and resources[i]

Stress is the psychological, physiological and behavioral response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over time, leads to ill-health[ii]

Stress occurs when pressure exceeds our perceived ability to cope.

Stress is a normal physical response to events that make us feel threatened or upset our balance in some way. When we sense danger – whether it’s real or imagined – the body’s defenses kick into high gear in a rapid, automatic process known as the “fight-or-flight” reaction, or the stress response.

The stress response is the body’s way of protecting us. When working properly, it helps us stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergencies, stress can save our lives – giving us extra strength to defend ourselves, for example, or spurring us to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident.

The stress response also helps us rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps us on our toes during a presentation at work, sharpens our concentration when we are attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives us to study for an exam when we would rather be watching TV.

But beyond a certain point, stress stops being helpful and starts causing major damage to our health, our mood, our productivity, our relationships, and our quality of life.

The Physiological Basis of Stress

When we perceive a threat, our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rouse the body for emergency action. Read more

Coaching Insights: Stretched or Stressed

Vermeer_1662_Art_of_painting Whether work demands stress or simply stretch is a subjective assessment and is often a matter of degree or accumulation. Subjectively, what may be stressful for one individual may be stimulating or productive in another.

I’ve been an air traffic controller at Kennedy International Airport for 20 years. Most people would call this job high-stress, but I thrive on it. You either love this type of job or you quit, or you never get into it in the first place. You’d think I was the type of kid who loved excitement or always took chances. I wasn’t. I could never be a firefighter and go into a burning house. That would be stressful. It’s just not in my makeup. (…) While we’re working, we’re “in the zone.” We work for two hours and then take a break. It’s mandatory. I don’t care how good someone is, after directing busy traffic for awhile, you need to decompress. At the end of those two hours, you know you’ve done a good job if the planes assigned to you were within the limits. I like that instant feedback.
Stephen Abraham

Degrees of stress or its accumulation also matter in determining stress vs. stretch. One may be able to manage stressful situations quite well at work (where specific motivation, competencies, skills and experience may come into play) but not in other aspects of life such as relationships, parenting, nutrition, fitness (where different skills may be required).

One way to determine whether work demands constitute simple stretch or even stimulating arousal that leads to more productive results, or instead cross over into the harmful stress category is by assessing balance. See a simple how-to after the jump. Read more

Stress Management and IBD: A Viable Option?

There is increasing research evidence that psychological stress and the mood disorders that often accompany it are linked with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). While emerging trial evidence supports the suggestion that psychotherapy may improve IBD-associated mood disorders, some data indicate that stress management has a beneficial effect on the course of IBD. Unfortunately, there is insufficient research to determine which, when and how stress management interventions should be offered to individual patients with IBD to ensure the best possible outcome.

Expert Review of Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2009;3(6):661-79.

Research News: Can Stress Kill?

Waterhouse_1888_LadyShalott_Tate Copenhagen – Researchers assessed the effect of psychological stress on total and cause-specific mortality among men and women. Danish participants in the Copenhagen City Heart Study were asked two questions on stress intensity and frequency in 1981 and were followed in a nationwide for twenty-three years. The results show that men with high stress had higher mortality. This finding was most pronounced for deaths due to respiratory diseases, accidents, and suicide. High stress was related to a significantly higher risk of heart disease mortality for younger men. In general, the effects of stress were most pronounced among younger and healthier men. No associations were found between stress and mortality among women.

American Journal of Epidemiology. 2008;168(5):481-491.

Stresshack #6: EMDR Yourself

The technique of bilateral brain stimulation has an immediate effect on the mood, acting as a powerful and almost instantaneous relaxant.

It is easy to do on yourself. Whenever bothered by distressing thoughts that do not seem to go away, find a quiet spot and move your eyes alternatively from the leftmost spot of your field of vision to the rightmost, for about 20 cycles and then pause. Repeat the sequence for 6 or seven times and see if anything happens to your thought patterns. You may be quite amazed at the resulting change in your mood.

How Does It Work?

One day in the early 90’s, Dr. Francine Shapiro took a walk in the woods while trying to deal with distressing thoughts that did not seem to go away. Quite casually, she started to move her eyes alternatively to the far left and to the far right of her field of vision, without moving her head. She soon realized that her mood was changing and she decided on a hunch to increase the speed at which she was moving her eyes from side to side. Within a relatively short time, her emotional state had changed enough for her to know that she was onto something. That something turned out to be eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, EMDR. Read more

History of Stress: Then and Now

Turner_RomaModerna The stress response, which occurs when we are threatened or when we perceive a threat, has a long history in human development.

In its evolution, prehistoric and historic humans have experienced significant environmental stressors. These stressor influenced our genetic development.

The principle of natural selection favored individuals who efficiently conserved energy, endured dehydration, successfully fought potentially lethal agents, anticipated their adversaries, minimized exposure to danger and prevented tissue strain and damage. How do we handle these genetically selected traits today? See it after the jump. Read more

Stress Software: You Survived Monday Morning?

vanGogh_1889_StarryNight_MOMANY Is There a Better Time of Day to Have a Heart Attack? This question was asked by Dr. David J. Lefer of the Department of Surgery, Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta in a study published this February. (1)

According to Dr. Lefer, it is widely accepted that the time of the day, the day of the week, and the season of the year influence the risk of a cardiovascular episode.

For example, heart attacks occur more frequently early on Monday mornings, especially during the fall and winter months. Recent research confirms that there is also “a significant contribution of intrinsic mechanisms mediating temporal dependence of cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology,” medspeak for “the time of day and day of the week matters a lot, no matter where you are.”

Dr. Lefer cites the example of travelers who appear to retain time-of-day oscillations if they have a sudden cardiac episode, in such a way that the peak incidence is equivalent to the early hours of the morning in their time zone of origin.

Read more

Stresshack #5: The Being and Doing of Stress

Seurat_1884_DimancheJatte Getting things done is important. In most organizations, from the family unit to the corporation and the nation, performance is often and sometimes exclusively evaluated on its basis.

But the doing of important and not so important tasks needs to be in sync with our unique and private way of being in the world. The more in sync with who we really are, the more what we do with our time and resources will feel rewarding and more deeply fulfilling.

A leader of others needs to be able to be genuinely true to self.  Research findings show that the best leaders in business, academia and politics are not significantly different from what they do. In fact, who they truly are and what they do appear to be one and the same.

One of the most significant sources of stress is when being and doing are not synchronized. When the individual feels (and is often not able to articulate) that what it is being done is at odds with what would “feel right” to do according to one’s authentic way of being, trouble often results.

A typical example is that of the overachiever or compulsive striver whose activities do not harmonize with values and private lifestyle. Eventually, this disharmony between being and doing creates high stress (allostatic load), whose consequences are (among others) ineffective personal and interpersonal leadership behaviors.

The Compound Interest of Stress

Wood_1930_AmericanGothic What makes chronic stress potentially lethal is its duration and the constant accumulation of its effects. Stress upon stress grows like compound interest on a loan. When only the minimum payment is made, the balance continues to grow and can never be fully repaid.

Humans respond to stressors such as physical or perceived danger, an infection, or a crowded and noisy environment, by initiating a complex biopsychosocial adaptation and coping response. This response is initiated by the sympathetic nervous system and leads to release of excitatory stress hormones (the catecholamines) and glucocorticoids from the adrenal cortex (the well-known adrenaline rush).

The objective is to engage with the situation, resolve it and return to the status quo. This process of regaining stability through change and adaptation is called allostasis. The arousal and mobilization of biopsychic resources is intended to be temporary and is shut off when the challenge has passed.

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5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Stress

Goya_1828_ExecutionPioHill Stress is often defined as entirely harmful. Nary a moment goes by without someone reminding us that “stress is bad for you!” The fact is, stress is good, in at least five different ways.

1: Stress is a survival mechanism of the human species  

We cannot function well without at least some amount of stress, which alerts us to the fact that something or someone requires our attention. Anxiety is not turned off or on by a rocker switch. Stress produces its effects along a continuum. At appropriate levels, it keeps people engaged in their world.

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