The past weeks of lockdown have caused me to experience a lot of emotional stress. The lack of contact with my sons, and too much contact with fear-consumed members of my extended family, have both contributed to this. And that’s without giving attention to the emotional stress that relates to the many (uncertain) impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Apart from battling to sleep well when I experience emotional stress, (which causes me to feel tired, irritable and even more stressed the next day… which leads to more problems sleeping) I am very aware that if I allow my emotional stress to continue unchecked then it will trigger chronic inflammation within my brain and body.
At a biological level, research clearly shows that your body and brain will respond to mental and emotional stress as they would to a harmful pathogen, or to a direct physical threat, such as a mugger confronting you, with a “fight or flight” (stress) response.
Brief exposure to a difficult situation, as sometimes happens during the course of one’s day, results in a short-lived, i.e. acute, stress response. These moments of emotional stress may result in a temporary inflammatory process being triggered, but they are unlikely to have a long-lasting negative effect on your health or immune system.
It is when you experience ongoing or prolonged periods of emotional stress, such as most of us have experienced over the past month, that chronic inflammation is triggered and the functioning of one’s immune system becomes compromised.
So, two important questions to ask yourself now are: To what extent am I prone to experiencing chronic emotional stress? And, to what extent have I been experiencing chronic emotional stress during the lockdown?
Over time, chronic emotional stress creates chronic, systemic, low-grade inflammation that not only compromises the functioning of our immune system but makes us more vulnerable to almost every chronic health problem known to science, including depression, Alzheimers disease, various cancers, diabetes, and a multitude of auto-immune conditions.
What is absolutely critical to understand and acknowledge is that it is most often your thoughts about a difficult situation that will cause you to experience chronic emotional stress.
Consider where your thoughts have taken you when you have worked for an unreasonable boss, have had financial difficulties, or have suffered a chronic health problem. Consider where your thoughts have taken you over the past month. In each of these ongoing difficult situations, it is quite possible that you have found yourself regularly thinking about the situation and, as a direct consequence, experiencing some level of ongoing anxiety, worry, frustration and/or other unpleasant emotion.
This is chronic emotional stress, and it results in the ongoing release of the stress hormone cortisol and other chemicals that trigger and maintain chronic inflammatory processes within your brain and body and have negative effects on both mental and physical health.
So, how can you reduce chronic emotional stress effectively? Well, ongoing difficult situations will trigger your habitual ways of dealing with the unpleasant emotions, including thoughts and feelings, that arise within you. These are the habits of thinking and feeling that each of us has developed over the course of our lives.
These habits may be thought of as your “autopilot” reactions, and may involve a habitual avoiding or blocking of the difficult inner experiences (of thinking and feeling).
An equally common autopilot reaction involves getting caught up in the difficult thoughts and feelings (and unpleasant physical sensations). The habit of ruminating is an example of this.
What most people do not know, is that whether you avoid thinking about an ongoing difficult situation and/or ruminate upon it, the chronic stress response is still very much in operation!
So, you may be asking: what is the alternative? Well, it may sound counter-intuitive, but the acceptance of the unpleasant feelings and thoughts that arise within us all is an alternative response that has, in fact, been proven to be far more effective in limiting emotional stress.
Acceptance of Difficult Emotions
Getting caught up in emotions
The most well-researched and most effective approach to accepting difficult emotions is what has been termed a mindful approach to emotional stress reduction. As such, I would like to encourage you to experiment with this mindful approach to by taking one or more of the mental steps listed below to calm yourself when faced with a difficult situation:
1. Remind yourself that emotional stress involves three separate but closely linked inner experiences; difficult feelings (e.g. of anxiety or frustration), unpleasant thoughts, and uncomfortable body sensations (e.g. butterflies in one’s tummy).
2. Recognise that your unpleasant inner experiences are normal and natural human reactions to difficult situations.
3. Note your autopilot reaction to these inner experiences, perhaps to try to avoid them and/or to get caught up in them, which often involves rumination.
4. Accept your difficult thoughts, feelings and body sensations as temporary experiences. (This step generally requires that you release your previous autopilot reaction/s.)
5. Hold your difficult thoughts, feelings and body sensations in your awareness while breathing deeply and slowly. (This quickly deactivates and calms the “stress centre’ in your brain called the Amygdala.)
News supplied by Alistair Mork-Chadwick (Psychologist).