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Natural Awakenings Spokane WA/Coeur d'Alene ID

The Mechanics of Stress

by Pat Dougherty

Stress! Surprise! It has to do with the brain. Deep inside each person’s brain is a limbic system which has several structures that deal with emotions and memories. The hypothalamus in the limbic system reacts when it perceives a threat. It sends a message out of the thalamus to the pituitary gland which forwards the message to the adrenal glands. When the adrenal glands are alerted about this threat—by physical, chemical or emotional stress—they go into fight-or-flight mode. This means they pump out adrenaline, cortisol and several other stress hormones.

When stress hormones are being pumped into our system, blood is diverted from our organs to our extremities. This is because the extremities are better at running and fighting than our organs; however, our organs are responsible for growth. Because our bodies turn over billions of cells every day, we don’t want to stay in fight-or-flight mode and shut down growth for too long. It is physiologically impossible to be in growth and protection simultaneously.

Fight-or-flight also shuts down the immune system. All of us have multiple pathogens—bacteria, viruses, yeast and parasites—living in and on us all of the time. A healthy immune system suppresses these pathogens to keep us from becoming ill. Since the fight-or-flight response stifles the immune system, this can become problematic.

Stress hormones also shut off the flow of blood to the front of the brain while funneling it to the back of the brain. Unfortunately, some structures in the back of the brain are much less rational than the front. This tends to make our behavior less intelligent.

Now we know that stress hormones do three things: stop growth, depress the immune system, and make us more irrational. In other words, stress can shut down a person’s life. That is why we want our stress hormones to show up for short periods when we need them, then get out of town. This brings us back to the limbic system. Here is a quick tutorial on how this system works:

1.     After our sense organs send messages to the thalamus in the limbic system a subconscious decision is made.

2.     Those messages can either go to the rational thinking part of the system, the neocortex; or they can go to the amygdala.

3.     If sensory input is viewed as a threat to the amygdala, the emotional, irrational part of the brain looks for a match in the hippocampus, another part of the limbic system which catalogs your past experiences.

4.     If the amygdala can find a fear-inducing match in the hippocampus, it will trigger the fight-or-flight response via the hypothalamic pathway mentioned above. This match can override the rational response of the neocortex even if the reaction is irrational.

5.     This means that old stored cellular memories can trigger irrational self-destructive behavior, even when it is not needed.

Fight-or-flight can literally save our lives. However, if stress hormones are staying active due to cellular memory and not an actual life-threatening situation, they drain us of life. The adrenal glands can become so exhausted they stay in fight-or-flight mode. Then the continually activated stress hormones stop growth, depress the immune system, alter the brain, and in general, shut down life. This becomes the new normal. Right now, more people than ever are stuck in this loop.

Remember, it’s impossible to be in protection and growth simultaneously. Protection is stress hormone activation, useful only when we are endangered. Too much activation shuts us down. When we stay in growth, life expands around us. We stay in growth by regulating our stress hormones appropriately. That regulation provides the opportunity to transcend health, continue to grow, and move toward wellness.

Simply put, there is an amazing level of wellness beyond simply “not being stressed.” That level is where the brain moves toward more joy and love. Less stress equals more growth equals more joy and love.

Pat Dougherty, DC, is a holistic chiropractor at Chiropractic Lifecenter, Inc., located at 2110 N. Washington St., Ste. 1, in Spokane. If stress is preventing you from moving toward joy and love, give him a call. He can help you understand what systems need energetic repair and can discuss how to remedy that. During this time of social isolation, he is offering free initial phone consultations. Currently operating with limited hours. Visit or call 509-327-4373 for more information.

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