CRAIG HASSED: Our state of mind has a very powerful influence on how our body feels. This area of science is called mind-body medicine. So for better or for worse, our mental and emotional state has direct influences. The stress response has a very important role to play. So if we’re trying to get away from a tiger, this fight or flight activation helps us to get out of danger quickly. But unfortunately we’re activating that fight or flight response 99.9% of the time not over what’s happening in their environment but what’s happening in here. We are creating stressors. We are creating tensions and worries.
We’re creating all sorts of anxieties about what ifs and maybes in the future or reliving stressors from the past, and that produces an inappropriate activation of that fight or flight response, and that comes at a cost. Now without going into all of this in too much detail, it produces a wear and tear on our system that’s called “allostatic load.” It’s like getting a car and absolutely flogging it to death by the way that we’re driving it. And so what that does is that puts a wear and tear on our system like making our parts wear out faster. So our immunity functions less well.
The technical term is “immune disregulation,” but we get more inflammation, we get less defence, so we get the worst of both worlds as far as that’s concerned. We also accelerate the hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attacks and strokes. We lose calcium out of our bones at a much greater rate. So all of these influences, if we wanted to accelerate the progression of chronic illness, this is pretty much the way that we’d do it. The other effects include also it accelerates the ageing of the brain, so we actually lose brain cells at a more rapid rate when we are activating these stress chemicals more often than we need to.
So our brain ages faster, and the areas of the brain that are most affected by this are the executive functioning areas of the brain and the learning and memory centres, the ones we rely on for high performance. There’s only one bit of the brain that grows when we’re activating a stress response all the time, and it’s called the “amygdala.” And that’s great when we’re trying to get away from a tiger, but the amygdala firing off the stress centre when we’re sitting outside of an interview room or an exam room, for example, it really doesn’t help at all. And it hijacks our executive functioning areas of the brain.
But also there are effects that have been noticed right down to the DNA of our cells. So poor emotional health over the long term, work stress for example, carer stress, all of these things and many more been found to actually shorten the telomeres, which are like the little caps at the end of our chromosomes that stop our chromosomes from unravelling. And they are a marker of our biological age. So the shorter they are, pretty much the older we are and the bigger the risk of the illnesses associated with ageing. So that’s the bad news. We’re probably feeling pretty stressed and depressed by the time we’ve heard all of that. But the good news is that these are all reversible effects.
But in order to do that, we need to switch off the inappropriate activation of that stress response when we don’t actually need it. And the best way to do that is to be mindful, to pay attention to the threat if it is there, but when we notice that we are catastrophising or replaying and so on, getting anxious about things in the future or angry about things in the past, is to learn to notice that but get us to bring our attention back to what we’re doing in the present moment. Now various emotions can influence our health in lots of ways. Emotions like happiness, for example, joy, or compassion, produce a profound relaxation response.
So the body’s, in a sense, very happy when the mind’s happy as well. There are other emotions like anger or bitterness or fear or stress that have negative effects on the body. But mind you we don’t want to be one-dimensional about emotions. Because, for example, it could be entirely appropriate to experience sadness– maybe the loss of a loved one, for example– and to be able to experience the sadness, which might be an entirely natural human thing to experience it, to feel it with awareness, to express it in a way that we feel comfortable with, without necessarily having to be consumed by it or dwelling on it.
This is also a positive emotion, so we don’t be one-dimensional, thinking when we’re smiling that’s a positive emotion, but sadness, for example. It could even be in a certain situation that anger might be quite appropriate. But to express that anger in a mindful way that does not have harmful intent, but perhaps helps us to draw attention to an important issue and is also supported by being able to be reasonable and discerning in the same process. Maybe even on occasions we can express anger in a mindful way, but that’s very different to the far more common kind of anger that we experience in our day-to-day life.