Addressing Chronic Stress
Practices for Building Resilience and Rewiring our Brains
We are in the midst of a pandemic of stress. It’s not just Covid-19. It’s climate change, economic insecurity, and the continual erosion of the political landscape. And then it’s whatever we might have going on personally, with health or relationships, with our families and our jobs. There’s a lot to process.
Under stress, our brains are wired toward negativity. The limbic system, a primitive part of the brain, developed the negativity bias to keep us safe. It evolved to help us detect and escape danger. It helps us remember information and experiences that threaten our safety. It heightens stress responses and increases vigilance. Unfortunately, sometimes the limbic system can get stuck in the on-position, and it can be hard to regain a sense of safety and come out of hyper-vigilance.
This happened to me, what I call a limbic hijack. I had gotten locked into a state of chronic stress. My negativity bias was heightened; the more I focused on what was wrong, the more I trained my brain to magnify that information and seek out evidence of it in my surroundings. I became increasingly worried and my worldview became more pessimistic. And my once slightly bothersome health issues became more significant.
Then I understood that I was caught in a limbic loop. I’m going to share how I found my way out, and how I continue to find my way out again (and again) when I fall back into that loop. It feels relevant now more than ever.
The simple act of noticing that my limbic system was driving my behavior helped me start to shift the pattern. I took, and continue to take, inventory of the thoughts and behaviors that might be associated with the rabbit hole of my limbic system. These patterns will show up differently for each person, but here are some to consider:
- Voices of the limbic system might include over-analyzing or over-thinking, negative self-talk, worrying or trying to predict the future, feeling stuck in overwhelm or despair, apathy, rushing unnecessarily, blaming, complaining, feeling a sense of over-responsibility, and/or needing to be in control. While many of these thoughts/feelings are perfectly natural, especially in a state of acute stress, they tend to further provoke the negativity bias.
- The limbic system can drive behaviors that feel compulsive or addictive. A good clue is that we may feel overly driven to do things that ultimately feel more draining than nourishing. This might include over-use of technology, such as over-checking phones or email, or compulsively gathering more information than is helpful or needed at the time. For me, social media can be especially problematic. I go there looking for inspiration or connection, but end up feeling barraged by more information than I can digest. Another limbic behavior might be habitually staying busy rather than resting and connecting in real time. Lastly, using substances or unhealthy foods to manage emotions might be related to an underlying limbic issue. Unfortunately, many of these habits further perpetuate limbic hyper-arousal. The irony is that we are usually looking to these habits to feel better, and in the long run, they can make us feel worse.
The next important step is to counteract the negativity bias. According to relationship researcher John Gottman, it takes at least 5 positive interactions to outweigh 1 negative one. To achieve that ratio, it requires making a daily practice of nourishing ourselves with what feels good or beautiful, and savoring it. The simplest things can uplift us when we take the time to absorb the experience, like noticing the colors of the landscape or the smell of the forest, enjoying a conversation, or basking in a smile from a loved one.
Personally, I am learning not to overlook any good feeling, but rather to notice it, hold it in my felt senses and treasure it. I put on rosy glasses and look for silver linings. I focus on gratitude. When I notice I’m off-track, I gently bring myself back to joy whenever I can. I do this because it feels good.
Certainly I want to acknowledge that this isn’t about living in a state of denial. I don’t minimize the importance of staying in touch with what is happening around us, so we can avoid harm with sensible precautions or take action when it is called for. This practice does not inherently mean disengaging with the world. On the contrary, I feel like this practice has allowed me to engage with the world more gracefully.
Also, this isn’t spiritual bypassing. I know it is important to experience grief and digest whatever emotions are coming up in these intense times. Personally, I feel more alive and more able to engage with the full spectrum of emotions. With a quieter limbic system, I have more bandwidth to process emotions. The difference I’ve found for myself is that I don’t get as stuck.
Of all of the tools I’ve used personally to address chronic stress and anxiety, this practice has been the most powerful and transformative. This practice has shifted my mental state, and it has also shifted my overall physical health. Longstanding and very real physical symptoms melted away. I rewired stress patterns that were held both in the mind and in the body.
To be clear, even though physical and mental symptoms can improve by rewiring stress patterns, it doesn’t mean those symptoms were purely induced by negative thinking or some other psychological issue. Limbic over-activation can indeed be caused by trauma or severe stress. However, it can also be caused by many other factors, including chronic inflammation, pain, stealth infections, environmental exposures or other disturbances in health. I suspect there may even be a genetic or epigenetic component to it.
Regardless of the origin, it can become a self-perpetuating loop. I’ve seen that the important part is to interrupt the loop and redirect it. Once an over-active limbic system is calm, there is less overall static. That often brings clarity about unresolved core stressors or underlying factors. Then it becomes easier to address them.
Addressing limbic system hyper-arousal can be life changing. But certainly, it is easier said than done. Sometimes no matter how much inner work and self care we do, we can still get stuck. It can feel impossible to dig in and simply will oneself to think and behave differently.
Fortunately, there are many tools that can help catalyze these shifts, by building up our stores of resilience and providing more bandwidth for the deeper changes. Both personally and in my professional practice, I see how physiological interventions can improve resilience to stress and help calm the limbic system. I’ll briefly touch on this here.
Nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium and various nutraceuticals like theanine or GABA can all have an impact on neurotransmitters, the chemicals of emotion. Herbs with adaptogenic properties can support the brain and the adrenals in maintaining balanced stress responses. Botanical nervines can soften and relax nervous system hyper-arousal, or can uplift us from depressed states. There’s lots of options, so check with a knowledgeable health care provider about which specific herbs might be a good fit.
Further, there is a strong role for nutrition and digestive support, especially given the profound role of the gut in influencing brain states. This means addressing chronic gut issues, and overall, emphasizing foods that are easy to digest and nutrient dense. It also means limiting foods or substances that result in physical or emotional hangovers. In particular, excessive caffeine, alcohol and refined sugars might boost mood temporarily, but can contribute to a downswing on the other side.
Last but not least, awareness of breath is an essential tool for altering stress responses and calming the limbic system.
The breath is a bridge between the parasympathetic relaxed state and the sympathetic fight or flight state. The breath helps reset the balance between these two important aspects of the nervous system.
If breathing is stuck in a fast, shallow pattern, there’s a good chance that the sympathetic nervous system is more dominant, and that we are missing out on the relaxing, restorative elements of the parasympathetic nervous system. Slow, diaphragmatic “belly” breathing helps restore parasympathetic activity. Further, belly breathing allows us to more fully access and process the emotions that we store in our bodies, particularly in the gut.
Additionally, yoga, tai chi, moderate exercise, and being in nature all have well-established benefits for enhancing resilience to stress. Almost certainly, these practices improve breathing patterns and promote parasympathetic activity, in addition to their other benefits for overall health.
In summary, I have come to believe that the best medicine is most likely what feels authentically good. For me, that means focusing on joy, finding what feels most nourishing, and living in that grace.
If the world is suffering, we don’t help it by joining in that distress. If we can climb out of the hole, we can better lend a hand. We can hold out a light for each other.
I want to acknowledge two powerful resources that were instrumental in helping me change my relationship to my limbic system:
- Annie Hopper’s Dynamic Neural Retraining System is designed for recovery from environmental and food sensitivities, mold illness, chronic fatigue, and many other chronic conditions. Although I believe this work can be profoundly helpful for many, it involves some intensive commitment to practice.
- Rick Hanson’s book, Hardwired for Happiness is a template for how to enhance joy in everyday experiences. It is very accessible and easy to integrate.
Also, for parents or those who work with children, check out The Whole Brain Child by Daniel Siegel and this great children’s picture book, Sergio Sees the Good, by Linda Ryden, which is about balancing the negativity bias.
Important Disclaimers: This blog is educational and it does not constitute or replace medical advice. The information contained here has not been evaluated by the FDA. Consult your healthcare provider for any interventions that might be appropriate for your personal needs and circumstances, especially if you have any medical conditions, are taking medications, or are pregnant or nursing, or if you are acutely ill. The use of the terms you, I, our does not imply that this represents any form of advice. Dr. Bridget Somine is an independent naturopathic health care provider at Farmacopia and does not receive any financial compensation for purchases there and has no direct affiliation with any herb or supplement company.