Dr. David Henderson
January 10, 2010
David Henderson

Our brains and bodies communicate continuously whether we are consciously aware of them or not. In many ways, this continuous communication is good. To breath, pump blood, or digest our food we need not be conscious. Our brains also have the capacity to multi-task. For example, we can drive home from work while we talk on the cell phone or sing with the radio. Our brains store and remember how to respond to environmental cues based on our past experiences. With continuous exposure, our brains react automatically.   

This automatic reaction can occur when faced with stress. The body increases the levels of epinephrine which increases heart rate, the rate and depth of breathing, and helps convert glycogen to glucose to boost energy supplies and facilitate muscle contraction. Even if our initial perception of danger is wrong, the body still prepares itself. How often are we startled by sounds in the night to which we would pay no mind during the day? When was the last time you jumped away from  a “snake” on a forest trail only to realize a few seconds later that it was just a twig? This automatic, preconscious response is the way the brain protects the body from potential harm.

Unfortunately at times our brains’ unconscious reactions can be harmful not helpful.We can learn maladaptive responses to stress that continue even in safe situations. For example, a small child learns to go to his room and hide when his parents begin to fight. By doing this, he protects himself from becoming the object of a larger human being’s unbridled anger. If this pattern is repeated enough, he will grow up avoiding conflict, reacting to it unconsciously by shutting down or “running away”. This will prove harmful in his relationship with his wife, his children, his friends and his coworkers.

These kinds of scenerios happen all the time in our daily lives. How we react to our environment is strongly influenced by engrained experiences from our past. To change, we must work toward conscious awareness of our thoughts, emotions and reactions to stress. Then we can practice changing our responses. Through repetition, we in essence rewire the circuitry of our brains. Psychiatry has developed multiple therapies to help foster this kind of change: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure/Response prevention, and biofeedback are a few. Medications can also help as they lower the intensity of the stress signal to the brain and give us more time to react consciously.

Our bodies stress response is a God-given tool for protection, but like anything else, it can malfunction. In times like this, we must remember that pain is not the enemy. It is the signal that leads us to conscious awareness of a problem that needs to be fixed.

Question: What situations tend to heighten your stress level? How do you respond? Is that response working for you? What other reactions might be more beneficial for you and those around you and how can you begin to practice making a change?