Reprogramming Your Stress Setpoint

Psychologists identify two kinds of stress, acute and chronic. Both affect the health of mitochondria in our cells and our general wellbeing.

Acute stress is short-lived. It’s what you encounter when faced with a challenge or novel learning situation, and is actually good for you in the sense that it allows you to remember the event.

Chronic stress is long-lasting. It occurs when you worry all month about how you’re going to make your mortgage payment, or when you dread every day waking up next to the person you married years earlier, or when your cells are continuously burdened with eliminating toxic wastes and heavy metals acquired from a polluted environment and now stored within a cell wall.

The Stress Response

Our bodies have a system in place to deal with stress. The HPA axis – which refers to three organs, the hypothalamus, the pituitary and the adrenal glands – regulates our fight-or-flight system. The pituitary gland and the hypothalamus are both located within the limbic (emotional) brain and the adrenal glands are located above the kidneys. When we perceive an imminent threat, the HPA axis, rather than passing the signal along to the neocortex for logical processing, releases stress hormones – cortisol and adrenaline – into the bloodstream. These give us quick energy, increase our heart rate, direct blood away from digestion and other non-emergency bodily functions, and reroute blood to our extremities and muscles so we can fight or flee.

This response is useful in the case of real danger, but especially in this modern age of nonstop obligations and connectivity, our brains can become trained to perceive a new email from our boss or a disruption in the kids' schedule as imminent threats. This locks us into a state of chronic stress where the adrenal glands don’t receive a signal to stop producing cortisol and adrenaline, leaving us 'tired and wired.' 

In addition to the unpleasant mental-emotional effects we’re all familiar with, excessive cortisol increases the damaging effects of free radicals in the neurons of the hippocampus, which is the seat of learning and memory in your brain that is the first to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease (elevated cortisol levels are found in at least 50% of Alzheimer’s patients). This damages the mitochondria (the power plants of our cells), which in turn causes even more free radical production. If cortisol doesn’t abate, the hippocampal neurons die, affecting our learning abilities and creativity, and the adrenals eventually give out, leaving us drained and exhausted. Study after study has demonstrated that chronic stress affects behavior, predisposing us to doing the same things over and over, creating a self-perpetuating rut in which the wiring of our neural networks weakens our ability to recognize and break out of repetitive, dysfunctional patterns.

What actually controls the amount of cortisol produced by the adrenal glands during a stressful event? The ultimate governor of adrenal activity is the hippocampus itself – when functioning optimally, it’s able to maintain cortisol production in response to stress at a normal level, but when damaged, it loses this ability and calls for excessive cortisol production. In essence, the hippocampus is like the thermostat in your home. With stress and trauma, the set point of the hippocampus changes, as when you adjust the temperature on your air conditioner. Lowering the thermostat makes the AC run longer; lowering the hippocampal set point has the same effect on the adrenals.

Resetting the Threshold

The hippocampal set point is programmed very early in life, with trauma at a young age increasing the hippocampus’ sensitivity to cortisol. But you can reprogram it by coming to terms with past traumas, real or imagined, and by having new positive emotional experiences. Of course, the ongoing biochemical assault from stress hormones on our hippocampus can make it very difficult to recognize and heal from emotional trauma. But these personal crises are important signals – when we feel imprisoned by our toxic emotions, we know at some core level that we must address our traumas, we must change.

Although the destructive emotions associated with past events may have come to dominate our moods and behavior, we’re nevertheless capable of developing neural networks that allow us to think and feel differently. Meditation is the oldest tool available to us humans to do this, and is more important than ever in a world that has our minds craving slower, simpler information flow and unstructured time. Just slowing the mind and allowing it to rest, free of worries and obligations, provides immediate relief and is a necessary first step to becoming more aware of what we’re doing in our lives.

When we’re caught in the rut of a hair trigger stress response, most of the 80,000 or so thoughts that we have each day involve ruminating over the past or worrying about the future. By strengthening areas of the brain that correlate with pain tolerance, body awareness, meta-thinking (awareness of how you think), memory, emotional control, happiness, and attention, meditation makes us more conscious and able to see the past not as a prison but as a lesson book for what we want to do differently in the future. By bringing us out of the complex modern environment and into our inner selves, the repeated experience of meditation reprograms our neural networks and lowers our hippocampal set point, making us more resilient to stress.

In fact, the latest research is finding that any experience that positively touches and inspires our inner selves bolsters our ability to face life’s inevitable challenges. This is why building activities that you truly enjoy doing into your day isn’t a luxury, something you can’t afford to do, it’s something you can’t afford not to do. Delaying all the fun, beauty and exhilaration of being alive until the perfect conditions you’ve imagined are finally in place is the ultimate self-defeating strategy. Because our brains can’t manufacture the biochemicals required for joy & peace and those for fight & flight at the same time, we must find a balance between these states, today, in order to experience happiness and growth in our lives.

Our brains, experiences and physical wellness are shaped not just in response to our nutrition and lifestyles, but also to our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. The state of being at ease, however you get there, is the consciousness required to create health🖤