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New Research Suggests Listening To Your Body Can Help With Stress

We all experience stress daily, whether at work or within our families.   Because this feeling can be so prevalent, we are also inundated with advice about how to cope with it.  Now, a New York Times piece reports on a new study suggesting that paying closer attention to our bodies can help us handle stress more effectively.

Positive and negative effects of stress

Stress isn’t all bad.  It can motivate us to perform well or to flee danger.  But long term stress is harmful.  According to the American Psychological Association, the many physical reactions from stress may include:

  • muscle tension;
  • faster breathing;
  • faster heart rate;
  • stronger heart contractions;
  • release of the hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol;
  • dilated blood vessels; and
  • increase in blood sugar.

A chronic state of stress wears down the body and mind.  Stress is a necessary physical reaction, but for optimum health it should dissipate as soon as possible.

Resilience

As the Times story explains, “resilience” is the body’s ability to return to a normal physical and emotional state after a stressful episode.  Scientists and therapists know that some people are more resilient than others.  But why?

To answer that question, researchers first studied adventure racers and elite special-operations soldiers to examine how they develop resilience in the face of the extremes of their jobs.  This work led researchers to believe that resilience increases when people listen to their bodies.  But because these individuals are not representative of the general population, they turned next to studying more ordinary adults.

First, researchers recruited 48 healthy adults and surveyed them about their emotional and physical resilience.  Based upon their answers to a standard questionnaire, the researchers assessed each individual as having high, average or low resilience.

Next, the scientists subjected the volunteers to the same test given to the athletes and soldiers, designed to induce stress in their bodies and brains.  The volunteers were asked to lie in brain scanning machines while wearing face masks that would make it difficult to breathe when researchers touched a button.  The machines showed brain activity while the tests subjects experienced breathlessness.

People in the new study with higher and average resilience had brains that reacted much like the brains of the soldiers and athletes.  The parts of the brain that receive and process signals from the body, such as elevated heart rate and breathing, were more active when the volunteers anticipated the masks closing.  But surprisingly, in response to this heightened awareness, these parts of their brains did not send many signals to the brain areas that intensify bodily arousal.  In short, their brains experienced stress but did not overreact to it.

People with low resilience, however, had brains that behaved differently.  The monitoring parts of the brain remained quiet while the face masks threatened to close.  Then, when faced with difficulty breathing, the parts of their brains that increase physical arousal became extremely active.  These people’s brains paid little attention to their bodies until the threat came to pass, and then overreacted.  According to the researchers, this brain response would undermine resilience by making it more difficult for the body to return to a more normal state.

What did researchers conclude?

The researchers found this limited study compelling evidence that resilience is more about bodily awareness than rational thinking.  While it is not yet clear that we can change our brain function to respond to stress more effectively, one of the researchers, Dr. Lori Haase, suggested that we might improve internal communication in our bodies by spending a few minutes a day paying attention to inhaling and exhaling without otherwise reacting.  This practice may improve the stress response by teaching us to “have a change in breathing when anxious but be less attached to that reaction.”

At Cohen, Placitella & Roth, P.C., we are always interested in medical developments such as this. And if you need assistance with a personal injury case, don’t hesitate to reach out to our office today.

Contact us for your consultation (215) 567-3500

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