Are You Choosing Stress? Part I

Most people can recognize that they are happier, more relaxed and essentially thrive when not experiencing stress. While this is true, why do you suppose that some people choose to live their day to day lives allowing themselves to be ruled by stress when they could enact behaviors that would prevent it?

Working in psych and integrative medicine I surely have my theories on this question, but decided to ask three specialists to share their thoughts with us.

Today, in part I of this series we are joined by Dr. Janina Scarlet. Janina shares her perspective as a neuroscientist, professor and observer of everyday human behavior. Please share your experiences with us by letting us know what you think!

Janina’s thoughtful response to our question above:

People learn how to behave in different situations by observing others. Mirror neurons are nerve cells that allow people to observe and record behaviors in order to ensure future replication of that behavior. Thus, children who grow up in a household that features a lot of violence might themselves become violent. Similarly, someone who was raised in a family where one or both parents worked long hours and never engaged in self care, the mirror neurons would encode this behavior as appropriate resulting in the child later growing up to be a possible workaholic.

In addition, people who are highly driven receive much reinforcement by attaining goals. They actually show higher dopamine release when they’re able to complete “impossible” tasks or a great amount of tasks. This becomes especially rewarding to people over time, sometimes resembling addiction, where goal attainment (and the dopaminergic release that accompanies it) becomes a highly stimulating reinforcer. On the other hand, if they are prone to feeling anxious or guilty for doing relaxing activities, which allow for reduction of stress, these feelings might actually be the very punishing mechanism that prevents people from engaging in self care. If every time someone was to engage in a yoga exercise they were to experience extreme feeling of distress and guilt about the time spent away from work, or if someone was to feel selfish about taking care of him or herself rather than taking care of someone else, then these distressing feelings would not only make the relaxation activities punishing emotionally, they could also potentially raise cortisol levels when someone is contemplating engaging in such activities.

Finally, I would like to mention plasticity. Although our brains are greatly malleable, where we can indefinitely form new neuronal connections and even regenerate neurons (through the very same self care activities and moderate exercises that people feel guilty engaging in), it does become more difficult to restructure an old way of thinking. Once something is learned and internalized through repetition and long term potentiation, it is engraved and becomes more resistant to change. Thus introducing a new concept, such as self care might require not only cognitive restructuring but physiological restructuring as well. Should one actually learn to incorporate self care and stress alleviating activities, not only would they feel better emotionally, they would also demonstrate lower sympathetic arousal, higher heart rate variability, lower blood pressure, decrease in pain levels, increase in endorphins and better cognitive processing.

… now tell us what you think!

Love to see the science. Read more here on mirror neurons.

Thank you to Harry Campbell for the illustration. Check out his super portfolio here.

Stay tuned for parts II and III coming next week where we’ll get to hear from a neurolinguist and biofeedback specialist.

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