The brain is divided into three main divisions: the neocortex, the limbic brain and the reptilian brain
Stress is usually caused by things in our environment such as pressure at work, relationship conflict, exams, difficult life events, global disasters and much more.
Our level of stress will depend on what we’re experiencing, how we interpret it, followed by the impact this has on our mind and body!
Sometimes, stress is helpful and even necessary! It enables us to stay alert in situations and gives us the energy and motivation to complete tasks. It becomes a problem when the body is constantly under pressure, or there are too many stressors being experienced at the same time, and the body doesn’t have time to rest or recover.
We can take a look at the different regions of the brain and the central nervous system to help us understand this better :)
The neocortex is the rational or thinking brain. It is the largest and most evolved brain and is responsible for executive functioning. It allows us to do things consciously, such as choose where to focus our attention, be creative, and problem solve.
The limbic brain is the mammalian or the emotional brain, and it produces emotions. It is the seat of the automatic nervous system which regulates things like heart rate, blood sugar levels and breathing. This is where the stress response begins.
The reptilian brain is concerned with our survival and is responsible for the fight, flight or flee response. Both the reptilian and the limbic brain work subconsciously to protect us from harm and discomfort. They are responsible for about 80% of our actions.
How does stress affect the brain and the nervous system?
Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala (located in the limbic brain) and which can make it more difficult to regulate our emotions.
Sensitive People are more susceptible to stressors in their environment, and so their nervous system will react more strongly to these changes.
The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is largely unconscious. It’s what controls the functioning of automatic systems in our body, such as our heart rate, breathing and digestion. The autonomic nervous system has two major divisions: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
The sympathetic nervous system is the ‘fight, flight or freeze response’ and this is activated as a natural response to perceived threat or danger. It acts to keep us safe and protect us from any harm. When we experience external pressures in our lives, we may enter a flight, flight or freeze response because our sense of safety has been compromised.
The flight, fight or freeze response all serves a purpose when we must protect ourselves from danger. Yet, the body often cannot identify the difference between serious life-threatening situations or a potential threat to our safety. It is common for many of us to be functioning in a state of high alert, perceiving threat from our environment at work, or experiencing high levels of stress at home.
If this system is activated for too long, it can have a detrimental effect on our body which includes a less effective immune system, trouble sleeping, tension in the body, physical pain and outbursts of powerful emotion.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System
The parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘rest and digest’ system. This system conserves energy, relaxes the body, slows the heart rate and promotes healing. Our ability to slip into this state is crucial during times of stress, so we can take time to heal our mind and body and handle our emotions more readily. It also improves the functioning of our immune system, and if our body weren’t able to rest in this way, we would end up reaching a point of exhaustion and start to suffer from more serious mental or physical health issues.
It is therefore helpful to engage in practices that help lessen the time that the sympathetic nervous system is triggered and instead engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Throughout the following bundles, I will share practices that do just this!