Stress, as I like to define it, is the reaction of the body to a perceived threat or expected outcome. This response is hard wired in all living organisms – the “fight or flight” response as it is popularly called. By now we’re all familiar with the complications of chronic stress including increased risk of heart disease, higher blood pressure, suppressed immune system and so on. This is the result of the sympathetic nervous system, that jolts us with a rush of adrenaline, constricts blood flow to the digestive tract and moves it into the legs and arms to fight, or run like a madman. A healthy sympathetic response is short lived and after we deal with the threat, the para-sympathetic nervous system kicks in to balance the blood flow, lower respiration, restart digestion and absorb the remaining adrenaline.
But our ancient stress reaction does not fit into our modern times where the bears that chase us are inescapable because they are our job, our spouse, our life. They never go away and we’re always running. Running. Running, creating a rut of repeated and habitual action that always leads to the same outcome – more running. The para-sympathetic response never activates to break the cycle. We’re stuck in a rut. If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. So much so that researchers at the University of Minho in Portugual wanted to know how this happens.
The researchers set up experiments with some chronically stressed rats which had developed habitual responses to problems and demonstrated rote behaviors like compulsively eating even when they weren’t hungry. (Sound familiar?) The scientists created the condition in the rats by inflicting repeated stress for about 4 weeks. After that time, in addition to behavioral changes, researchers notice that the brain circuity of the rats actually changed as well. Areas of the brain responsible for big picture decision making and goal directed problem solving atrophied and showed reduced function while the habit forming parts of the brain enlarged.
What this indicated to the researchers is that under chronic stress, the rats were now neurally primed to keep repeating the habitual behaviors and less likely to be able to break the habit. A negative feed-back loop had formed that trapped the rats from self-induced recovery. While perseverance can be a valuable skill (you remember “if at first you don’t succeed…. try, try again”) this state of perseverance is one that’s turned into obsession. Unhealthy by any stretch.
The good news is that when the researchers removed these over-stressed rats from their office cubicles and plopped them down on a sandy beach in Hawaii with an umbrella cocktail in hand, their conditions reversed after about another 4 weeks. (Well, who wouldn’t after a 4 week vacataion!) The point is that during that vacation time, the unhealthy rat brains re-wired themselves and the atrophied problem solving parts of the brain re-sprouted and the habit forming section was reduced – to the point that the brains of the formerly stressed out rats were indistinguishable from the control rats who had a balanced lifestyle all along.
So, the solution is first not get yourself in that situation by creating a lifestyle of balance – like the control rats in the experiment. Secondly, have some means of assistance to help pry you out of the rut by first assisting you to recognize the rut and then to create a change – maybe with a vacation, a massage, or some exercise that will break through the rut and help rewire your brain to restore your wits.
So, if you didn’t get a chance to take a vacation this summer, there’s still time to make one more good decision before the rut eclipses your ability to decide to take one. Massages are also available today!