Stayin Alive: The biology of bliss

Living in a COVID-19, socially distanced landscape, it's more important now than ever to develop a healthy relationship with stress and build resilience.

When do you feel most alive? Spending good times with your family? Or maybe that night you were at the beach gazing at the stars with a fire and some good music? Perhaps, getting your adrenaline pumping from jumping out of an airplane or rafting down the Colorado River.

Stressors are everywhere, and it's easy to be overwhelmed and shut down. Fortunately, by understanding the science of stress and engaging in activities that create hormesis, the immune system can be strengthened so that when the winds of stress try to blow you over, you remain standing tall. 

When you fall asleep at night and reflect on the day, do you remember the positives or the negatives? According to Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen, people are more inclined to remember their negative experiences more than the positive.

In fact, studies have shown that "bad news outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report" due to the brain being more predisposed to recalling the "bad stuff" rather than the "good stuff" due to our survival instinct.

Negative news exploits the oldest part of our brain, which regulates essential survival functions such as breathing, moving, resting, feeding, emotions, and memory.

This brain region, called the "old brain," includes the brain stem, medulla, pons, reticular formation, thalamus, cerebellum, amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus. Everything works together to alert us in case of danger and keep the autonomic nervous system running smoothly.

sad girl reading news

As hunter-gatherers moving about, our ancestors continuously stayed on the move to keep alive. The elements of nature possibly take a turn at any moment. The amygdala is hardwired to constantly alert the mind for threats, explaining why it is associated with the body's fear and stress responses. And it makes sense, because back then, life was short and hard for early humans, with an average life expectancy of only 25 years.

In essence, the amygdala is very good at what it does—regulating emotions and behaviors while utilizing an estimated two-thirds of its neurons to detect negativity in the environment and quickly decode them into long-term memory. Simply put, the amygdala is always on guard for threats to our motivations, both real and imagined.

This guardedness explains why the brain can become like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones; why encoding positive experiences into long-term memory requires more time and attention.

🧭 The digital world 🧭

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, there is a five-tier model of human motivations composed of the following: physiological, security, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization needs—arranged from the bottom to the top of the hierarchy. 

Based on the theory, needs at the bottom must be satisfied first before individuals attend to needs at the higher levels.

Maslows Pyramid

Fast forward to today's digital world; we don't always have to look over our shoulders for animal attacks, poisonous berries, or freezing weather. 

Instead, we are more exposed to social media threats to our self-esteem, relationships, and social status. It's not that these motivations weren't threatened in ancient times. Still, since it's easier to fulfill basic needs in modern society, we now have the mental capacity to care about our needs to self-actualize.

The internet is filled with ads, clickbait, and other distractions, and stressors are rampant. Whether it is misinformation or the fear of missing out, research suggests that prolonged exposure to social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram creates stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms.

Negativity from the content that we consume hacks the stress response circuitry for the amygdala to signal support from the adrenals with a well-designed cocktail of stress hormones that inspire action: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

Adrenaline is commonly referred to as the "fight or flight hormone" and produced by the adrenal glands. It receives a message from the brain that stress is present, resulting in increased heart rate and a surge of energy to focus and respond to the stressor.

Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline, as the adrenal gland and the brain release it. When produced, the body becomes aroused, resulting in feeling more awake, aware, and responsive.

Lastly, cortisol kicks in and begins to suppress the immune system, increasing blood pressure and decreasing sex drive. Cortisol, the "stress" hormone, is triggered by the amygdala when a threat is perceived. Unlike the previous two, it can take several minutes before it takes effect, thus, slowly creating a state of "not safe."

The body then begins to balance fluids and blood pressure while simultaneously regulating body functions that are not critical, like the reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth. Hence, "fight or flight" instead of "rest and digest."

The way I see it, our natural human instinct is to fight or flee that which we perceive to be dangerous. Although this mechanism evolved to protect us, it serves as the single greatest limiting process to our growth. To put this process in perspective and not let it rule my life, I expect the unexpected;
make the unfamiliar familiar;
make the unknown known;
make the uncomfortable comfortable;
believe the unbelievable.”

Charles Glassman

Wired to fire

When the amygdala is all fired up with these stress hormones, judgment becomes clouded. The subconscious will try to bring itself back to an equilibrium where it is "safe" even from imagined danger. Without self-awareness, the subconscious mind will go for the quickest and not necessarily the most rational ways to get its needs met, leading to unhealthy habits like procrastination, pornography, and binge-eating.

And because unhealthy habits bring in relief and positive emotions such as safety, certainty, and comfort, we tend to repeat these behaviors and eventually form a patterned response to stress. Consequently, addiction to negativity sets in, and behaviors can begin to change for the worse. The more compelling the toxic content is, the stronger its impact on the mind and body.

Over time, when exposed extensively to chronic negativity and stress, the brain's pleasure and reward centers can become overstimulated, leading to depression and apathy. The body starts to pay more attention to these stressors for a hit of neurochemicals to awaken and enliven.

With doom, gloom, and dread blaring at us through the news compounded by the pressure to project a "perfect life" on social media, it's crucial to understand how to filter out the noise and achieve inner peace.

The way of a superior man is three-fold: virtuous, he is free from anxieties; wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear.

Confucious

Rites of Passage

While stress is infamous for its adverse effects on someone's overall well-being, there's a type of stress that leads to good outcomes—positive stress.

Stress can be beneficial for short periods when induced in a controlled manner. Over time, resilience can develop to enhance performance under pressure. Low-level stressors stimulate the production of chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen neurons' connections. Long-term benefits include increased focus and motivation, and most importantly, the ability to persevere and overcome challenges that life presents.

The two common elements in defining resilience are adversity and positive adaptation. In many cultures worldwide, rites of passage serve the purpose of developing strength and resilience. These practices, often ancient and traditional, create an opportunity to overcome hardship, pain, and the fear of death while in a safe and supportive environment with elders present.

In the Brazilian Amazon, Satere-Mawé elders collect bullet ants, renowned for one of the most painful bites in the natural kingdom, and insert dozens of them into a pair of gloves for young initiates. The boys are then required to stick their hands in the gloves for ten minutes while chanting and dancing. Once the pain has subsided, they are considered men and warriors of the tribe.

Satare-Mawe Bullet Ant Initiation

On the other side of the ocean, the Massai tribe has an ancient tradition to help usher their young warriors into becoming men by venturing into the wild to kill a lion with a spear, the standard to become a true warrior and protector of the tribe. No longer practiced, this rite of passage was done both individually and in groups.

Massai Lion Hunting

How about down in the South Pacific? Well, the Naghol tribe in Fiji has their young ones bungee jumping. A tradition dating back fifteen centuries, boys become men by jumping off a wooden tower around 100 feet high during the yam harvest. They climb to the top, tie a vine rope around their ankles, and take a leap, with the older men supporting the ceremony in the background. The goal is to get as close as possible to the ground without hitting it.

Naghol Land Diving

Coping with Stress

For short periods, stress can be beneficial when induced in a controlled manner, and over time, stress resilience can be developed. Studies show that the two common elements in defining resilience are adversity and positive adaptation.

Here in the United States, a country where rites of passage are few and far between, there is a growing trend to engage in "positive stress" activities. Low-level stressors actually stimulate the production of chemicals called neurotrophins and strengthen neurons' connections. 

Long-term benefits include increased focus and motivation, and most importantly, the ability to persevere and overcome challenges that life presents. We can't control what happens, but we can definitely learn to control how we respond.

Several of the most popular activities include hot yoga, fasting, and ice baths. While fasting and ice baths are relatively accessible, the easiest way to get started with "positive stress" is a simple cold shower daily. It requires a little bit of effort and a fair amount of willpower.

Cold showers are a type of hydrotherapy that has been used therapeutically for many centuries. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who added rubbing to cold bathing, was accustomed to using cold water to treat the most severe illnesses. In holistic health, a foundational precept of a robust immune system is good circulation. 

When taking cold showers daily, and even switching back and forth with hot water, you are forcing capillaries in the body to expand and contract. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in a controlled environment, and blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline increase. Resilience and adaptation follow. 

To get started, you can begin your shower with hot, and when ready, switch over to cold and see if you can stand in it for 2-3 minutes once a day. Most protocols recommend trying this for a minimum of several weeks to see results, but after the first one, you should already feel better.

Conclusion

In a world where many are overwhelmed and overstimulated, taking an active stance and rewiring the brain is critical for health and well-being. Getting started with a daily cold shower and a little journaling doesn't take much effort or time. It just requires discipline and commitment. Both are easy upgrades that produce significant results in very little time.

Besides those, there are many ways to deal with stress and adversaries that don't require animal bites, hunting, or near-death experiences, but if you're into the extremes, why not try them too? No matter what anyone is going through, it's essential to give ourselves some credit and realize that the digital age is still relatively new. 

We probably wouldn't be here as a species without the superpowers of our internal alert system that our "old brain" grants us. Challenge yourself and see if you can do at least one thing every day to improve your stress responses. As the saying goes, we can't control what happens, but we can learn to control how we respond.

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