The pinging phone, back to back meetings, rush hour traffic; most of us get a little on edge when we are face to face with high stress situations. We also probably know people who are likely to fly into a rage when someone keeps them waiting in line at the bank. How we react to stressful situations may actually be hardwired into us from an early age.
Daniel P. Keating has been researching human development for decades and has written a book about individuals who are at higher risk for a number of psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression, addiction and post traumatic stress disorder because of exposure to extreme stress in utero or in the first year of life. In Born Anxious (St Martin’s Press), Keating presents the case for a biological basis of having your stress response stuck in the ‘on’ position. He calls this state stress dysregulation (SDR), and it is essentially what happens when “methylation”, an epigenetic change, turns off the expression of a gene that tells the stress system to turn off after a threat has passed. With that gene turned off, we remain in flight or fight mode, unable to modulate our nervous system response, so we are continuously pumped with cortisol, and more apt to ‘fly off the handle’ at the slightest provocation.
Keating, who earned his Ph.D from Johns Hopkins and is a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, describes in his book the ways we can help SDR individuals. The best times to create new pathways are in early childhood, and again in adolescence, since these are the times that our brain is laying down the most neural networks; essentially creating habit patterns in the brain. There is still hope for SDR adults to change their patterns, but it takes more effort and attention, because the systems and pathways that are already in place are resistant to change.
Keating presents three keys that are useful for unlocking that genetic switch, and allowing our biology to react more appropriately to stressful situations. They rely on tools that, hopefully as adults, we have developed.
- “A capacity for self-knowledge” results from having experiences where we have learned what moves us forward in life, and what keeps us stuck. Keating says this is “the essence of mindfulness-paying attention and acting with purpose and an informed sense of oneself.”
- Social connection. When we have positive interactions with others, we are flooded with serotonin and oxytocin which help to balance too much cortisol. These help in rewiring the brain with new pathways.
- A commitment to sticking to change. There has to be a lot of awareness that we will be drawn to the quick fix - food, alcohol, and drugs being the most prevalent, in order to escape the discomfort of trying to change. With awareness of this tendency, we can develop ways to move past those uncomfortable moments.
These mindsets can support the following lifestyle habits, which represent the keys to unlocking a more appropriate stress response, whether or not SDR is an issue:
- Consistent physical activity. In addition to being good for overall health, and also an effective way to process excess cortisol in the body, regular movement enhances the function of both the prefrontal cortex, involved in judgement and decision making, and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in learning.
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction. Having a practice of awareness of oneself in the present moment can decrease the size of the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions such as threats and fear.
- Social Support and community involvement. As adults age, there is an increasing health benefit from being connected to community. Seeing oneself as an important member of a group, which a purpose and contribution to make, is another way to bolster activity in the prefrontal cortex.
We can recognize how stress affects us, and how our level of stress affects those around us. No one wants to walk around on eggshells, living in fear of someone we love, or even someone we just work with, having an extreme emotional reaction to something that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Understanding both the biological basis for this tendency, as well as ways to support change, can help each of us in our lives, and our communities as a whole.