Stress management is an important part of managing your condition but what is stress and why do we feel it? Professor Stephen Palmer, an expert in stress and stress management, defines it thus:
Stress occurs when perceived pressure exceeds your perceived ability to cope. (Palmer, S. 2007)
We all need a certain amount of pressure in our lives to make it enjoyable; that thrill when you go on a first date, the nerves as you walk into an exam room, the fun of trying something new. However, if you feel that the pressure has become too much, perhaps your boss is giving you more work than you feel you can cope with or a relationship is going through a bad patch and you are worried your partner will leave you, then your stress responses kick in.
Our brains are bombarded with information from the moment we are born. This information is taken in through our five senses and sent to the brain for processing. The brain works faster than a supercomputer but even so struggles to process everything that comes in. Instead, it compares new information to things previously stored. So if you pick up a pen, say, your brain has a quick check in its memory bank and sees that you have picked up items in that shape and form and used it for writing, so it comes back with ‘pen’. If it’s something new, say a strange fruit in the supermarket, it will take longer to process. You may find yourself turning it over to see all sides, rubbing your fingers over the skin and smelling it to decide whereabouts this new fruit should be categorised.
What if the thing you see is something dangerous, like a tiger loose on the street? Your brain processes this in a slightly different way. The human brain has been in development for thousands of years. The first part to develop was the bit right at the back of your head just above your spine called the amygdala. This is the most basic brain form and it’s here that the things you do to stay alive, such as breathing, are controlled. It’s also where the ‘fight or flight’ response is triggered. This response was essential in the days when if you hesitated for a moment, you could end up being eaten!
As soon as you see the tiger, the brain starts running through its processes. A signal is sent along the neural pathways to the areas that control your sight, hearing etc and to the part of your brain that makes decisions about risk. However, part of that signal is sent directly to the amygdala. As soon as the amygdala receives the signal, it sends out a flood of hormones into your system. Your heart starts beating faster, your blood vessels constrict except for those supplying your arms, legs and heart, your pupils dilate, your mouth becomes dry and you get that feeling of butterflies in your stomach as your digestive system slows right down. This all happens incredibly quickly, before the rest of your brain has even had time to process that it’s a tiger on the loose. The technical term for the system that does all this is the sympathetic system and as well as the brain, the adrenal glands and pituitary glands are involved. The adrenal gland secretes the hormones nor adrenaline and adrenaline and the pituitary gland sends out hormones to the adrenal cortex to produce cortisol. Now that this is all in place, you can run away from the tiger as fast as you can – the flight response.
It makes perfect sense to run away from a tiger but that same response kicks in for anything that we find scary which includes things like that maths exam you forgot to study for, or driving on a busy motorway. In some people, the flight or fight response is activated way more often than usual, especially if as a child they felt very insecure in their environment. This can mean that even simple things like loud noises, or strong smells can be perceived as a threat, setting off the sympathetic system. If you developed this heightened stress response as a child it will continue into adulthood. Eventually, your body becomes overloaded with cortisol and things start to go wrong. Some people may have the misfortune of it leading to a heart attack or a stroke, but our bodies may react by producing or exasperating functional neurological symptoms. The overload may also affect our memory. Anybody who has been in a bad car accident or similar will be aware of that feeling of time slowing down and also of not being able to remember what happened. This is because cortisol has flooded through the system.
As you can see, managing stress is important for anyone with functional neurological symptoms. Finding what works for you may be a matter of trial and error but here are some suggestions:
- Listening to music: Choose something that you enjoy and that means something to you. If you hate classical music, then Vivaldi won’t do anything for you. Make sure it is something upbeat with a strong tempo.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness is defined as “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment” and is based on elements of Buddhist practice. It is a way of really thinking about and focusing on your feelings and emotions without judgement or trying to change them in any way. There are many apps available but it is best if you can actually attend mindfulness classes.
- Art/Craft: Let your creative side out! Draw, paint, colour in, sew, knit… Whatever works for you. Focusing on a creative work will slow your heart rate and breathing down and help you to feel relaxed and stress free.
- Exercise: Even the smallest amount of exercise will help. If you can, go out for a walk but if you are stuck indoors, look for exercises you can do in your chair or even lying in your bed. Start very slowly and build up gradually.
- Go outside: Science has shown that being in a green space helps mental (and physical) health enormously. Going for a walk in your local park or even out for a wander in your garden will make you feel better and lift your mood.
You can also find a video on our Useful Videos page that explains chronic stress that may be of interest.