Stress and the Mind-Body Connection
The stress response is perhaps the best understood example of the mind-body connection.
What Happens in Your Mind
For the stress response to be initiated, your mind must perceive something as a threat. That doesn't mean that you consciously know there is a threat; in fact, it usually happens subconsciously. Maybe your boss walks into your office without notice, or you are subconsciously aware of a scary man hanging around you at the mall, or maybe things are just hectic and you can't get it all done on time.
Whatever the reason, your mind interprets what is happening as a threat. It sends a message that alerts your hypothalamus.
The Mind-Body Connector: The Hypothalamus
Some people call the hypothalamus the mind-body connector. It is the interface between your thoughts and your body's automatic responses to those thoughts. The hypothalamus secretes corticotropic releasing factor (CRF) and initiates the body's response to stress.
What Happens in Your Body
The hypothalamus starts the ball rolling, and the pituitary gland in your brain responds to CRF by releasing adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH stimulates the adrenal glands and they secrete stress hormones. In response to stress, the adrenal gland secretes two major hormones (along with some that are less actively involved in stress): adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenalin stimulates your heart, lungs, brain, and blood vessels--all the most important organs for survival. It sends more blood to those organs and pulls blood away from your skin and digestive system. You body's idea is that if you're facing death, you don't need to digest stuff or feel pain, and your body thinks every threat is a death threat.
Your adrenals don't mount a proportional response, either. It's an all-or-nothing fight to the death. Your adrenals flood your body with adrenaline, so your heart rate and blood pressure go up, you're hyper alert--ready to fight off the threat or run from it. Your adrenal glands also secrete cortisol, which helps your body use its energy stores to meet the emergency.
Using Your Mind-Body Connection
Stress is supposed to help you in an emergency, but it's not supposed to be your normal state. In our culture, however, we are stressed most of the time, and when stress is unrelenting, it wears our bodies out.
You can use the mind-body connection to turn off your stress response at least some of the time. That's what some relaxation techniques, like meditation and visualization, do. They convince your mind that there is no threat, and your mind tells the hypothalamus to stop sending out CRF so the response stops. When you know how the mind body connection works, you can use it to decrease and manage your stress.
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