Directly Calming Your Body’s Threat Response

Your capacity to enjoy your life, feel safe and content is dependent on your body’s neurochemical profile. When you are stressed you don’t feel good. There are methods to regulate your body’s stress reaction and inflammatory response.

The gift of life

Every living creature, from one-celled organisms to mammals, have a reaction to threats that improves it odds of survival. It is intended to be so unpleasant that action has to be taken to resolve it. Once the danger is passed, the chemistry of the organism returns to a neutral or safe state. Humans have the additional characteristic of language and consciousness. Unpleasant thoughts and emotions cause the same reaction except that we can’t escape them. Repressed thoughts and emotions are even more problematic. Every person has to deal with this issue at some level. Although every animal has this response to danger, humans have labeled it “anxiety”. It describes your total bodily response to threat; it is not the cause. It signals danger and it is the pain – and also a gift.

It is critical that you separate your identity from this powerful reaction. It is amoral and unpleasant and not who you are.  The first step is to get rid of the word, “anxiety” from your vocabulary and substitute, “elevated stress chemicals” or “survival response.” So, regardless of how you accomplish it, lowering your stress hormones and levels of inflammatory proteins/cells decreases this unpleasant sensation. It does not respond rational means.

When your stresses overwhelm the coping capacity of your nervous system, you will experience mental or physical symptoms. There are ways of increasing the resiliency of your nervous system and also methods to process stress so it has less of an impact. But this response is part of life and inevitable. When it occurs, you will want to minimize the time spent in this state. This set of tools directly lower your elevated stress reaction.

 

 

Taking control of your body’s neurochemical state

Much of the effect is modulated through the vagus nerve, which is at the core of the autonomic nervous system. It is calming and strongly anti-inflammatory. Many of these suggestions directly stimulate this nerve.

Changing sensory input

    • Active meditation/mindfulness – you are placing your attention on something more pleasant.
    • Deep tissue or light touch massage
    • A cold compress to the face (Mäkinen), especially after exercising or if acutely stressed.
    • Connecting with nature – historically a basic aspect of the human experience.
      • Walking barefoot in the sand.
      • “Hearing” the silence
      • Taking in all of the senses
        • Birdwatching
        • Learn about the flowers and trees
        • Notice different smells and fragrances
      • Awareness
        • Become aware of your feelings of anxiety and anger and train yourself to separate from and observe them.
        • Awareness is a powerful tool. A pain psychologist and close friend of mine pointed out that, “You have to feel to heal.”

Breath work directly stimulates the vagus nerve, which is strongly anti-inflammatory (Mason).

A lot of research has been done on the effectiveness of meditation. It is challenging to measure as there are so many schools of thinking that espouse different methods. However, one common factor that has  been documented in an extensive medical literature review  (Zaccaro), is slow breathing.

 

 

  • A respiratory rate of < 6 breaths per minute (bpm) and < 10 bpm was consistently correlated with stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which also decreases inflammatory cytokines (communication proteins). Whether you paid attention to your breath or not, was not a factor.
  • Breathing through your nose during either inspiration or expiration could be of some benefit.
  • One deep breath, followed by a slow exhalation
  • Meditation with deep breathing. Try using a counting method (such as 4 counts breathing in and 4 counts out; or 4 counts in, hold for 7, and release for 8)
  • Alternating nostril breathing (block one nostril while breathing in and the other nostril while breathing out)
  • Focus solely on your breath (Mason).

Calming activities

    • Acupuncture
    • Exercise – hard workouts
    • Biofeedback
    • Medical hypnosis
    • Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Gong

Visualization

    • Remembering in detail the most enjoyable of your life.
      • Connect with and feel it.
    • Visualize what others are seeing when you are upset.
      • Would you be attracted to you?
      • Would you want to be around you?
      • Is this really how you want to treat those who care about you?

Decrease stimulation of your nervous system

A sensitized nervous system more quickly creates anxiety. So, it is important to be mindful of activities that fire up your brain. It is not a matter of right or wrong. The point is to observe the effects on your nervous system. Consider what you feel happening to your body when you:

  • Play intense video games or watch violent movies
  • Argue with family members
  • Watch news that upsets you

Some additional suggestions to remain calm include:

  • No discussing your pain or medical care with anyone except your health care providers.
  • Limiting the time that you spend watching news and other over-simulating programs.
  • Choose less intense video games.
  • No complaining about anything, including the pandemic.
  • No criticizing anyone. You are simply projecting your view of yourself onto them.
  • No offering advice that is not requested. How do you feel when you are on the receiving end?
  • No gossip

These techniques are effective and necessary short-term strategies, they can be incorporated into the larger picture to solve your pain. The bottom line is to use common sense to actively calm yourself and avoid activities that stress your nervous system. It is surprising how much difference it can make.

References:

Berk LS, et al. The neuroendocrine and stress hormone changes during mirthful laughter. Am J Med Sci (1989); 6:390–396.

Kok BE, et al. How positive emotions build physical health: perceived positive social connections account for the upward spiral between positive emotions and vagal tone [published correction appears in Psychol Sci (2016); 27: 931]. Psychol Sci (2013); 24: 1123‐1132. doi:10.1177/0956797612470827.

Mäkinen TM, et al. Autonomic nervous function during whole-body cold exposure before and after cold acclimation. Aviat Space Environ Med.

Mason H, et al. Cardiovascular and respiratory effect of yogic slow breathing in the yoga beginner: what is the best approach? Evid Based Complement Alternat Med (2013); 2013:743504. doi:10.1155/2013/743504.

Miller M, et al. Positive emotions and the endothelium: Does joyful music improve vascular health? Circulation (2008); 118: S1148

Vickhoff, B, et al. Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Frontiers in psychology (2013); 4: 334. 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334.

Zaccaro A, et al. How breath control can change your life: A systematic review on psycho-physiological correlates of slow breathing. Frontiers of Neuroscience (2018); 12: 1-16.