Homeostasis: When Chronic Stress is a “Steady State”
Deal with Stress Before it Deals with You!
The dendrite connections in our neural networks are not set in stone as once thought. Every time we learn something new, dendrite connections are changed and new ones are made that didn’t exist before. So, the Internet of our mind is constantly changing, updating, and adapting to the environment in which we place it. The purpose of this adaptation is to achieve and maintain a biological balance known as homeostasis or “Steady-State”.
It appears that the brain likes predictability and consistency. Once we have acquired a certain steady-state our brain will act to maintain that state - even a state of chronic stress or depression! The good news? – With discipline and repetition, we can change our steady-state to a “new steady-state” or neo-homeostasis.
For example, if one prefers regular cola a switch to diet cola would initially be difficult because of the aftertaste. However, when a switch to diet cola is made for three weeks or longer the taste buds – or more accurately the neural networks associated with them – adjust themselves for the diet cola. Now the person cannot drink regular cola without an aftertaste.
Whenever we try to make a significant change in our neural networks the effort is initially met with resistance. But if we persist with discipline and repetition we can make the changes we want. Some networks are so deeply ingrained that they do not go quietly. Consider the person who grew up in a dysfunctional, chaotic and alcoholic home, then fell prey to their own addiction.
This person’s accumulated neural networks of abandonment, shame, and contempt from childhood – coupled with the negative consequences of their own addiction network – is likely to cause their internal steady-state to be chronically painful. By “chronic” I mean always present. Pain becomes their steady-state… something they are used to. They may never have known anything else.
In cases like these, depression can become familiar and accepted as a way of life. In fact, any attempts to recover from chronic conditions like depression, codependency, or addiction are usually met with strong resistance in the form of self-sabotage as the subconscious mind tries to regain and maintain it’s normal steady-state.
When someone says, “that’s just the way I am” – it’s true. However, the unspoken implication is “I can’t change” which is NOT true. If it were true there would be no recovery from addiction, no healing of depression, codependency, or Adult/Child Syndrome.
While these networks have become deeply ingrained – part of a chronic steady-state, with awareness, dedication, and action, they can adapt to a “new steady-state” called Recovery. The proliferation of the twelve-step movement is a testimony to that.
Neurogenesis and the Fight-or-Flight Response
Neurogenesis means brain growth – it’s the creation of new dendrite connections in the Internet of the Mind. In a recent article, William Horton, Ph.D. writes:
“Positive, enriching environments stimulate the brain to create more neural connections… While positive programming stimulates neurogenesis, negative programming halts neurogenesis… Regardless of the source, the effect of continued stress from negative programming is neurologically toxic… What this means is that when the brain is constantly exposed to worry and negativity, homeostasis (balance) becomes the priority and all other neural functioning suffers. In this situation, existing neurons are preoccupied with survival and the brain does not exert effort in creating new neurons…”
In other words, if you live with a steady-state of chronic stress then all kinds of imbalances occur due to the neuro-toxicity – causing neurological, physical, emotional, and spiritual degeneration (breakdown)…which leads to pain and more stress.
Healthy-balanced living, on the other hand, leads to neurological, physical, emotional, and spiritual regeneration (growth)… and ultimately health and happiness. Stress plays an important role in our life – indeed in our very survival.
There is good stress (eustress) and bad stress (distress). Eustress is a short-term physiological reaction that helps us rise to meet a challenge. It is a function of the survival systems of the brain – also known as the fight-or-flight response.
Let’s use as an example of a primitive hunter being chased by a saber-toothed tiger: The moment his unconscious mind perceives the threat… the hunter’s brain became flooded with a stress hormone called CRF which heightens anxiety… creates hyper-vigilance… then sends instructions to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol, another stress hormone, to prepare him for action.
As a result, the hunter becomes hyper-alert, all of his muscles tense up making him ready to act, his heart rate increases, and all his senses became sharper to the point he is able to automatically assess the situation in a fraction of an instant and respond without thinking.
This fight-or-flight stress response requires a lot of energy. Accordingly, the brain shuts down unnecessary systems, such as the digestive system, immune system, reproductive system, etc. diverting the energy from those systems into reacting to the current situation. Once he finds safety, the “Don’t Get Eaten” switch is turned off and a relaxation response follows. Ideally, all of his energy is diverted back to its normal functions and homeostasis is regained. Because of this ability, the Hunter was able to survive – good stress. (see diagram below)
There really is no such thing as “bad stress”. Distress is not actually caused by stress. It’s brought about by the lack of an adequate relaxation response. An inability to create an adequate relaxation response can be due to several factors, many of which may spring from the emotional wounds of unmet childhood dependency needs.
Growing up in an abuse and/or neglectful home causes:
Hyper-vigilance – a need to always be on guard
Difficulty soothing oneself
Extremely low self-esteem
High levels of anxiety
Chronic negativity – cynicism or pessimism
Poor self-care – Poor diet and lack of exercise
Sleep Disturbances – Insomnia, bad dreams
A general lack of balance in one’s life
Constant fears of abandonment
Self-talk grounded in shame
Contempt for one’s self, other people, or the world in general
These things create patterns of chronic stress (distress) resembling the diagram below.
Neuroplasticity and Adaptation
The brain is now believed to have a lot of plasticity – In other words, it’s highly adaptable – It adapts to any environment we subject it to over a period of time. An “environment” can be external to the body as well as internal. This adaptation creates a familiar balance or “Steady-State” in the brain.
Here are some examples of INTERNAL environments:
Negative Internal Environments:
Negative self-talk – cynicism, pessimism
Constant worry and fear
Alcohol or drug abuse
Positive Internal Environments:
Peace of mind – serenity
Feeling loved and lovable
Being in good shape
Here are some examples of EXTERNAL environments:
Negative External Environments:
Alcohol or drug abuse
Abuse and Neglect
Positive External Environments:
Good support network
Balanced living – proper rest, exercise, recreation
Happy family – time, attention, affection, direction
Success oriented – achieving goals
Fun & Recreation
Stress & Physical Deterioration
When consistently excessive levels of stress become a steady-state it throws our whole system off…Take, for example, that during challenging periods the energy it takes to respond to that challenge is diverted from other systems such as the digestive system…
Since the digestive system is not operating at an optimal level it becomes more difficult to lose weight. There may also be a pattern of comfort eating – The extra weight combined with excess amounts of sugar and carbohydrates cause even more stress on the body.
Very little energy is left over for neurogenesis and healthy exercise causing even more stress on the body. To make matters worse, the excess amounts of cortisol and adrenaline coursing through the body cause it to run in overdrive on a daily basis – This is especially true when one lives in survival mode such as many adult-children of dysfunctional families.
This is why it does not surprise me that I see a lot of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia in my work with those who have long histories of codependency. Carrying the weight of the world on one’s shoulders day after day is bound to take its toll sooner or later.
Stress and Addiction
The use of objects like chemicals and food…or activities like gambling and compulsive spending for comfort and relief is a short-term fix at best – one that has very serious long-term consequences. This kind of “solution” actually makes the problem worse by increasing stress at all levels:
Biologically – We have system-wide breakdowns causing physical problems such as tension headaches… migraines… hypertension… ulcers… obesity… liver problems… heart problems… and even terminal illnesses such as cirrhosis and pancreatitis etc.
Psychologically – We have to increasingly delete and distort reality so that we can consciously continue to use the addiction of choice… causing us to get locked into this destructive behavior… Our judgment in other matters also becomes seriously impaired due to the constant distortions that must be employed. Negative self-talk is one of the most effective ways to keep toxic levels of stress going…Talk about pollution of the mind!
Emotionally – Because the unconscious mind cannot escape reality we develop emotional problems… such as angry outbursts, depression, and anxiety……These are signals from our unconscious mind that something is wrong and needs to be attended to… When these signals are ignored they get “turned up”… but no avail because our denial prevents us from taking heed of the signals.
Socially – The impairment in the areas already mentioned cause concerns from family members, employers, friends and others, broken promises, family conflict, marital problems, legal issues, financial difficulties, performance problems at work, absenteeism, lost opportunities, and lost relationships are typical in the late stages of addiction. Eventually, we become increasingly unable to carry out the responsibilities of our life roles, spouse, employee, parent, friend, brother/sister, son/daughter, etc.
Spiritually – The distance between our value system and our actual behavior grows further and further apart. This causes feelings of guilt and shame… worsening the infection of toxic shame
Which of the following is the best method for dealing with stress?
Improving Time Management Skills
Good Sound Sleep
Visualization & Guided Imagery
You guessed it – All of the above are excellent for dealing with stress. But limiting yourself to one or two approaches is not very effective. For example, improving your skill at managing time so you can squeeze more into your already over-burdened schedule is like taking out a credit card every time a payment is due, sooner or later you have to pay the bill – emotional, spiritual, and physical bankruptcy – aka BURNOUT! The best thing to do is combine all of the above methods for a powerful, synergistic effect.
What are the benefits of managing stress?
Improved Physical Health
Higher Energy Levels
Naturally More Active
Easier Weight Management
More “Spring” in Your Step
Improved Relaxation Response
Improved Emotional Health
Decreased Emotional Reactivity
Increased Emotional Regulation
Able to Enjoy the Simple Things in Life
Experiences of Inner Peace & Serenity
Improved Mental Health
Decreased Negative Self-Talk
Improved Spiritual Health
Able to Focus on Values
More Time for Prayer
Increase in Spiritual Nourishment
Improved Social Health
More “Present” In Relationships
Able to listen and Validate Others
Optimism Feels Good to Others
The next time you think of rest and relaxation as luxuries that you do not have time for, rethink that! Think of all you can save in healthcare expenses by taking time. Think of the increase in productivity at work or career by taking the time. Think of the improvements in your relationships, sleep, weight management, comfort management, and personal growth. How can you afford NOT to take the time!