21. Chronic Stress, the Amygdala, Adrenaline, and Cortisol

Traumatic Incidents Affect Your Inner Mammal

I woke up in my bed at 5:15 a.m. to a bright flash of light and an explosion. It was the loudest sound I have ever heard. I could feel the force of the blast resound in my chest. At first, I assumed that there was someone in my bedroom with a shotgun. I leapt out of bed for cover and then heard footsteps and yelling just outside my bedroom window. I didn’t know what to do. My home had been burglarized before, and I even experienced a robbery a few months prior, so I assumed I was experiencing a home invasion. After a half-hour of walking around maniacally with a baseball bat I finally got the local watch commander on the phone. He told me that police had served a warrant next door and used multiple stun grenades to gain entry.

It had never crossed my mind that the situation was caused by law enforcement. As soon as I was apprised of the fact that the explosions I heard were not criminal I felt much better. At least the conscious part of me knew that I was no longer in danger. My cat Niko on the other hand, couldn’t understand this. He was engaged in all kinds of nervous behavior that I had never seen from him: turning, looking over his shoulder, pawing at the ground, shaking. I tried my best to calm him but didn’t know how to communicate to him that we were safe now. I got dressed and took the bus in to work. There were no empty seats that morning so I stood up, feeling the ice in my blood, and the tremors shoot down my spine. Holding the rail, I kept asking myself: “what can I do today to counteract the biological toll that this experience will exact on me?” At the time I didn’t know anything about bracing or diaphragmatic breathing.

After the event my conscious self knew that I was completely safe. But, like my cat, unconscious brain areas – that don’t speak English – didn’t know this. These brain modules, like small, scared animals, continue to be emotional because they do not have access to the conscious, declarative knowledge that there is no real threat. Evolution kept these brain modules in the dark because they cannot afford to trust the semantic belief that “I’m pretty sure that I am safe now.” Holding on to pseudothreat in this way only makes us weaker and less equipped to deal with real threats. I believe that psychological trauma from violent incidents like this one stands on the shoulders of the existing trauma in the body that derives from the status hierarchy. They employ the same physiological substrate. The status hierarchy weakens us and makes us more susceptible to other forms of trauma which can then cripple us.

I have been violently assaulted several times in my life. I have been held up at knife point. I have seen people stabbed, shot, and beaten. Panic didn’t help me in any of these situations. But chronic panic caused by these threats and subsequent rumination about them greatly increased my bracing patterns. The mornings after these incidents occurred I would wake up with my teeth heavily clenched. It turned my jaw muscle into a clump of hard cords (this was later completely reversed by the jaw interventions in Chapters 8 and 9). Many people suffer multiple traumatic incidents, much worse than these, that go on to desecrate modules throughout their body.

I have a few friends that have been “jumped” and beaten by a group of individuals. Almost invariably the neurological toll this takes is ruinous, especially if it has happened multiple times. Car accidents, mugging, battery, rape, gruesome injury, childhood abuse, anything that involves an incapacity to stop a terrible thing from happening does this to us. The central aspects seem to be entrapment, immobilization and helplessness. The real damage comes from the obsessive rumination about these aspects after the actual event.

A Heightened Stress System

As discussed in Chapter 2, chronic stress changes the body’s life strategy. It convinces the body that the environment this organism was born into is particularly life threatening. Scientists refer to such environments as high in “extrinsic mortality.”  This means that trauma has communicated to the organism on a molecular level that the probability of it being able to live a long and happy life is low. The genes then reprogram the body to deal with a short and grisly one. This changes your body from a slow-burning candle into a firecracker. Your body expends all of its energy upfront because it doesn’t expect to live for long. This happens at the expense of long-term energetic investments such as: healing, the immune system, learning, reproductive functioning, affiliation, and investing time and energy in offspring (Ellis et. al., 2006).

When stress goes on for too long it results in a heightened stress system. This is thought to enhance performance during stress-provoking or life-threatening situations (Wingfield et al., 1998) and facilitate fearfulness, hypervigilance and cautiousness, all traits that would have been highly adaptive during extended periods of dire stress (Marks and Nesse, 1994). Chronic stress is known to initiate up-regulation of the stress hormone system (also known as the HPA axis). This occurs in all mammals including primates, and humans, causing the stress response to become more pronounced, and more easily triggered (Miller & O’Callaghan, 2002; Sapolsky et al., 1986; Lovallo & Gerin, 2003). This lasting increase in stress hormones is thought to be an adaptation to severe environmental conditions (Petronis, 2000). The fear center of the brain also adapts to chronic stress.

The Amygdala Recognizes Threat

The fear signal itself comes from the amygdala, an area of the brain that becomes active once it perceives a stimulus, or a group of stimuli together, as a threat. The amygdala is tuned to recognize an immediate physical stressor (loud sound, pain, quick movement, angry face) quickly and automatically from the inputs it receives from the ears, eyes, and other sense organs (LeDoux, 1996). The recognition of an abstract stressor (knowledge that you missed your bus) takes place in the cerebral cortex which then signals the amygdala (Bremner, 1999; LeDoux, 1998). The amygdala then sends signals that initiate startle, fight or flight, rapid heart rate, and distressed breathing. After being repeatedly activated over the course of weeks the default level of activity in the amygdala is upregulated. This enhanced priority given to the amygdala causes the animal to react to every seemingly threatening stimulus as if it were a full threat.

The amygdala’s job is to decide: “does this pattern of inputs that I am receiving look like something that I have seen before that turned out bad?” It does not use reason or conscious deliberation to do this, rather, it engages in a simple form of pattern matching: adding up seemingly bad inputs to see if they sum to a threshold. If the inputs surpass this threshold, the amygdala triggers the sympathetic nervous system. Thus much of our emotion is not dictated by rational thought, rather it maps onto the amygdala’s eccentric way of determining statistics and probability. For example, an offender’s voice, clothes, name, or cologne could subliminally reinstate an amygdala highjack.

The amygdala’s form of logic can make mistakes. Allow me to provide some examples. If your roomate’s friend calls your home and asks to speak to your roommate while you are in a negative state, you may find yourself biased against them. If they call again later, the voice of your roomate’s friend may trigger the same negative emotions that affected you the last time you heard their voice. This is an illogical association. It is also very unfair to the caller. Negative emotions may feel valid and impelling, but they are often invalid and illusory and this is why we should question them rather than act on them impulsively. After acute or chronic stress the amygdala can influence your thinking to be delusionally negative.

When our amygdala is activated, we often trust it unquestioningly. We accept its messages as a type of foreboading intuition. When activity in the amygdala increases the brain becomes primed for negative thinking. Your brain is temporarily retuned to perceive everything as troublesome. For instance, it increases the tendency to perceive neutral events as bad (e.g. criticism when none is intended). This is the opposite of a manic episode where someone with mania might perceive everything as a happy, lucky coincidence. People with mania often feel like all of the cars of the freeway move to let them through, like everyone is perfectly agreeable, and like everything is going their way. Whenever I start to feel that everything is going poorly I try to remember one thing: that neurochemicals can paint over reality.

I have noticed recently, that if one thing stresses me out, I am much more likely to get stressed out about other, completely unrelated things. I might get upset about an unfortunate circumstance and then wear cynical glasses for a full hour afterwards. It is pretty clear that this “displaced” negative thinking is totally irrational. Interestingly though it may not be irrational from an evolutionary standpoint. In the Triassic and Jurassic periods it was beneficial for mammals to be prepared for the worst during bad times. When there are predators on the loose, or when natural catastrophes strike, they are rarely quickly resolved. Whether you are a mouse or a monkey it makes sense to become scared and then stay paranoid. From a modern perspective; however, it is illogical to generalize anxiety to whatever your mind turns to. Don’t let one unfortunate circumstance lead to a domino effect of paranoia. Notice when I you carry negativity over, from one thought to another. When I can notice it I try to tell myself that the negativity may feel valid and intense but it is probably just residual and misattributed emotion.

Stress: Its Actions Within the Body

When the amygdala perceives a stressful stimulus it initiates the stress response by mobilizing the sympathetic nervous system leading to rapid breathing, tense muscles, reduced sensitivity to pain, shutting down digestion, and a rise in blood pressure. Next it activates the adrenal glands triggering the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is a fast acting hormonal response to an acute stressor that frees up blood sugars (glycogen to glucose) to give muscles and other tissues the energy they need to deal with an immediate threat.

After adrenaline, the second major stress hormone is cortisol. Cortisol is slow acting response to a chronic stressor that liberates fat molecules for use. In the long run cortisol promotes muscle protein breakdown and is involved in promoting fat storage. It also changes the expression of several genes in fat tissue that are associated with obesity and type 2 diabetes. Chronically elevated cortisol leads to hypertention, elevated heart rate, increased circulating levels of lipids and cholesterol, atherosclerotic plaque formation, decreased high-density lipoprotein (HDL), and increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (Sapolsky, 2005). It is pathogenic when secreted chronically. Cortisol makes stress corrosive and is related to disorders like arthritis, asthma, acid reflux, chronic fatigue, decreased metabolism, depression, ulcers, a variety of cancers, migraines, sleep deprivation, immune system impairment, and cardiovascular disease.

Stress damages us biologically. Elevated cortisol causes the immune system to produce inflammatory chemicals (cytokines). These inflammatory proteins upregulate the immune system’s ability to heal wounds from physical attacks. This would have been advantageous in prehistoric times, when stress indicates that lacerations are likely. But today chronically elevated inflammation leads to dire disease states (Sapolsky et al., 2000). To escape chronic inflammation we have got to stop thinking inflammatory thoughts.

As you might have guessed elevated cortisol is common in humans and animals who are on the bottom of the pecking order. Cortisol is the hormone of status defeat and it spikes in monkeys and apes that are being dominated. When we feel defeated our serotonin drops, our testosterone drops, and our cortisol spikes. Intermittent stressors like workplace abuse or even replaying uncivil incidents in one’s mind elevate cortisol levels in the blood. Stress and cortisol cause animals to desperately look for a way out. Today it drives us to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, overeat, and displace work-related frustrations on family members. If you are curious to see what highly elevated cortisol feels like within your body you can submerge your entire forearm in an ice bath for two minutes. This is a reliable method to increase cortisol levels that is often used in experimental studies. When cortisol is raised in this way it causes subjects to perform mental tasks less flexibly and intelligently, and increases pessimism and the negativity bias.

Stress expert Robert Sapolsky wrote an excellent book on the neurobiology of stress called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” Sapolsky explains in the book that most animals, other than social primates, do not give themselves ulcers because they don’t spend time worrying. Zebras and most other animals only get upset when they find themselves in immmediate danger, usually involving a predator. Zebras don’t imagine negative social situations in their head. It is mostly monkeys, apes, and humans that repeatedly model stressful scenarios in their heads. Replaying or reenacting social tension in the imagination leads to a similar cortisol response that actually experiencing the situation does. If we only got upset when we are being stalked by wild predators, we would all be a whole lot happier!

The way that you appraise a stress provoking stimulus will program your automatic response the next time you encounter a similar stimulus. In other words, your brain will do its best to remember how you responded to the stressor so that it can expedite that response next time. So when you are alarmed, shocked, or unpleasantly surprised, try to minimize the negativity immediately. The way that you handle difficult, stressful scenarios creates memories that will affect you unconsciously later on. You are calibrating a “stress posture” that your body will remember and go back to when you feel similarly stressed. Underreacting in this way inoculates you against stress. Face difficulty as a challenge, and use it to forge an inner resilience that is as centered, grounded, and poised as possible.

Activity #1: Maintain Composure Amid Tragedy
Imagine that a terrible crisis is happening around you. You are attempting to stop assailants from battering your friend. You are experiencing a natural disaster. An animal is attacking your group. Imagine maintaining complete composure amid tragedy. You stand straight, your face becomes expressionless, you breathe with the diaphragm, and you master the fear that you feel in your gut. Other people see your outward appearance and are puzzled by it. You focus on fixing the situation the best way you can, knowing that maintaining your composure will only aid your efforts to help others and to right wrongs.

According to Buddhism suffering derives from the pursuit of ephemeral positive feelings, and fearing that they will leave. Transcending suffering is accomplished through realizing how pointless it is to chase them. It is all about mindset, and mindsets snowball over time.

Don’t Develop An Unhealthy Fear of Stress

After recounting so many of the physical costs of stress in this book, I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t encourage you not to stress out over stress itself. Here is why: studies have shown that the pathogenesis of physical disease in response to stress is actually made much worse when someone believes that the stress will affect their health. Thinking that stress is unhealthy makes it more unhealthy (McGonigal, 2015). In fact, people who report that they actively avoid stress are more likely to suffer from depression. When you feel stressed, don’t hate it, don’t fear it, don’t fight it, appraise it as enthusiasm and allow diaphragmatic breathing and belief in yourself to take away the unhealthy elements.

Is some stress good for us? Low amounts of stress are natural. In fact, most excitement is accompanied by a little adrenaline and cortisol, as well as an increase in the heart and breathing rates. We need some stress, just like we need to flex our muscles. The problem with the stress response is when it is elevated chronically like a braced muscle. A stressor itself is inherently neutral, it is individual differences in the way it is appraised that induce either distress or eustress. Eustress is positive stress, and comes about when we decide that we have the resources to successfully cope with the challenge.

Whenever you feel that you will end up stronger because of a stressful incident you almost always will. This is known as post-traumatic growth. People who see stress as normal and an opportunity for growth fare better. So believe that stress and arousal will create an advantage for you. In related studies, nervous public speakers that said “I am excited” are rated as having better speeches than the people that said “I am calm.” So see yourself as scrappy, full of grit, and with an ability to bounce back. The next time you feel your heart beating out of your chest focus on it. Accept it, befriend it, love it. It is not there to hurt you it is there to give you energy and power. Within a few moments you can turn that throbbing from the feeling of impending death to excitement, motivation, and energy. People with anxiety are more afraid of the sensations involved in stress. Don’t be afraid of the sensations. Let them excite and delight you.

Scientists have recently divided stress into two main responses: the threat response, and the challenge response. The threat response is the fight or flight response that makes you angry or fearful priming you for self-defense. The challenge response gives you energy, helps you focus and motivates you to confront a challenging obstacle. Both responses share a number of physiological factors such as an increase in heart rate. Challenge elicits a stronger (not just faster) heartbeat giving you more energy. However, during a threat response the body is anticipating physical harm and makes relevant alterations. For example, blood vessels constrict to minimize blood loss due to injury sustained during combat. The body also increases inflammation and mobilizes immune cells to prepare for bruises, and cuts. A challenge response doesn’t do these things. The threat response leads to cortisol and to feelings of self-doubt. The challenge response lead to enthusiasm and confidence.

I am asking you to avoid mulling over threats, fights, and abuse in your mind. But I’m not asking you to stop thinking about rising to meet challenges. In fact, avoiding what makes you anxious can suspend growth.

The Challenge Response and Feelings of Control

Stress in mammals is known to be exacerbated when the animal cannot figure out how to make things better, feels helpless, or feels like it has no control (Glass et al., 1971; Minor et al., 1984). In fact, a rat that is subjected to numerous experimental stressors will liberate significantly less cortisol if it is made to think that it has some control over the frequency of the stressors, even if it does not actually have any control at all (Sapolsky, 1994). In a similar classic experiment rats that were signaled with a beeping noise ten seconds before a shock to their foot had much less severe ulcers than the rats that had no warning. This is because the stress had some predictability, and they retained a sense of control. The moral of this story? Focus on the elements of disturbing events that are under your control. More importantly, know that your reaction to them, your attitude, and your reasoned choice is always under your control.

After the event described at the beginning of this chapter I felt helpless in my own bed. This is not ok. You must do what you have to do to make sure that you feel in control underneath your sheets even if it means installing an alarm system, or a new bedroom door with a deadbolt. The place where you sleep should provide you sanctuary and refuge, where you can completely let down your guard, debrace and recharge. Protection and security is the reason why Buddha sat and slept at the base of the Bodhi Tree, which he could trust to “have his back.”

Hair Loss and Preventing Scalp Soreness

Hair loss can be caused by stress. The loss of hair from the scalp due to chronic stress is known as telogen effluvium. I started losing hair at a rapid rate at the end of 11th grade. At the time I had no idea what caused the sudden hair loss. Looking back over a decade later it is clear that it started immediately after having my nose broken. I believe the hair loss was a response to some form of high intensity bracing that I took on after the injury. Hair loss is exacerbated by stress and it is actually cortisol that makes the hair follicles thin and fall out. By age 30 my hairline had receded to the midline of my scalp, far past the hair loss experienced by my father, or my grandfathers. All hair loss stopped immediately after I started paced breathing. Only a little of my hair grew back; however, because the miniaturization of the follicle responsible for hair loss is irreversible.

Eczema and spontaneous nail bed trauma

Another major contributor to hair loss is reduced blood supply to the scalp. Stress and aging can reduce circulation and vasculature in subcutaneous tissues all over the head. As we discussed in Chapter 4, the forehead is tight in most people because the forehead muscles become strained and tense from social signaling. When we constantly raise our eyebrows, tense our jaw, and scrunch up the back of our neck these muscles in the head remain tonically active, selfishly eating up the blood supply to the general area. Relaxing the muscles in the face and head, especially in the forehead, can mitigate this problem.

Does your scalp feel sore to the touch when you depress a knuckle into it with 5 pounds of pressure? It shouldn’t. If it does, you may be losing hair due to reduced blood flow and the accompanying reductions in oxygen and nutrients. If these actions feel sore or painful, you should do them more often to improve vascularity and circulation. You can use the same compressive and percussive techniques discussed in Chapter 6.

Sore scalp has been closely associated with alopecia (androgenic and others), male pattern baldness, diminished microcirculation, reduced microcapillary perfusion, and the resultant miniaturization of follicles. I think that there is one good way to effectively stimulate increased scalp circulation. My intervention is very simple, quick to perform, and can largely reduce scalp soreness in less than two weeks. Do the following:

Stress Exercise #1: Increase Scalp Blood Flow
1)         Take the heel of your palm and press firmly down on the top of your head, around your hairline, or on any patch of scalp that feels sore. 2)         Move your hand in a circular motion while pressing very firmly. 3)         Try to move your hand in very wide circles, attempting to stretch the scalp as far as it will go in each direction. 4)         Take about one second’s time to complete a full circle. 5)         Repeat this all over the scalp, focusing on the sorest areas for a total of five minutes.

The skin of my forehead, hairline, and temples went from being very sore and painful to massage, to being pain-free within 2 weeks of the palm heel massage method described above. But keep in mind that it is not only the scalp that is affected by poor circulation.

I often wear headphones and take walks. I listen to audiobooks, my breathing pacemaker, or music. After a few years of this my ears really hurt every time I took off the headphones. They were so painful one day that I figured I might have to stop wearing them completely. Frustrated with this I cupped my palms over my ears and bent them forwards firmly. This stung! I then spent 60 seconds bending them in different directions. It ached but it also felt good. The next day the pain was cut in half. Three more sessions like this and the pain was gone completely. My ears hurt because the blood flow was diminished. With age and uneven use our tissues develop a condition called hypoperfusion. Hypoperfusion is where tissues and organs receive reduced circulation and diminishment in the number of small blood vessels. My ears had become highly hypoperfused despite the fact that there are no muscles in the outer ear. Pinching and bending my ears for less than five total minutes provided the mechanical deformation of the tissues necessary to reinstate the blood supply. Our whole body needs this kind of tender loving care. You’ve seen this in previous chapters, and I want to encourage you to address hypoperfusion anywhere you can find it.

Drug Use Leads to Frailty and Chronic Distress

In my early twenties I had between one and five alcoholic drinks on weekends, a cigarette every Saturday night, and a cup of coffee most weekdays to increase my work productivity. These drugs created the illusion of helping manage my stress, but they actually contributed to it. Over time I slowly began to understand that even these uncontrolled substances lead to addiction, compulsive use, relapse after abstinence, and physical dependence.

Nicotine and alcohol create a sense of euphoria that lasts a few minutes. However, the accompanying withdrawal from even a single use leads to minor dysphoria that lasts days. This discomfort affects you emotionally, and increases your bracing, shallow breathing, and emotional distress whether you notice it or not. I never noticed the withdrawal symptoms in my twenties but after developing sensitivity to my inner states, which we consider in the next chapter, they became very apparent. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include irritability, fatigue, shaking, sweating, nausea, headache, and difficulty concentrating. Cortisol goes up, the amygdala gets a promotion, and distressed breathing predominates. These symptoms don’t only affect alcoholics who go cold turkey. They affect everyone who uses alcohol in a dose dependent manner. The symptoms for smoking can be worse. Withdrawal from any drug robs a user of diaphragmatic mobility and the resulting shallow breathing may be a primary mechanism responsible for addiction.

When you use any type of drugs on a weekly basis you experience fiendish cravings. I realized that two shots of liquor made me feel fearless for thirty minutes, and a cigarette extinguished my anxiety for an hour, but for the next few days the subtle pain from withdrawal made me introverted and submissive. In fact, studies show that long-term drug use can significantly lower serotonin levels. Situations that I would consider to be minor hassles before became calamities that would make me think: “My God, I have to have a drink.” When you feel you “need” a cigarette is exactly when you shouldn’t smoke, and instead spend some time with your breath metronome.

When people use drugs recreationally it makes them feel immune to social stress for a short time. This inevitably leads them to go too hard on their bodies. It works like this: you strain your body and its chakras to the limit, until you reach the point where you need another drink or cigarette. These dull the chakra pain and allow you to continue to push your chakras, further deranging and abusing them. Soon you are in so much pain that you’re turning to a third drink, a fourth drink, or possibly even harder drugs.

You cannot drink caffeine or alcohol, or smoke a cigarette or marijuana and hope to keep your trigger points under control in social situations. Rather, intoxication makes you intensify your social displays without awareness of the increase in bracing. Intense social interactions that go on too long create loads of tension. Drugs amplify this. This is why after mixing the two, otherwise known as partying, you wake up feeling achy, and nauseous, with a headache and stiff breathing.

Imagine that you badly strained your neck Friday afternoon. Would you go to a party that night, drink, and do drugs? If you did do you think it would make your neck better or worse? Would you do this is you had a fever? What if you were 90 years old, would you do it then? I offer these hypotheticals to help the reader understand that social drug use is characterized by postural neglect, zero muscle refreshing, shallow breathing, and continuous tension. I recently heard a 20 year old woman who stayed up all night drinking and partying say something the next morning that really stuck with me. As she practically limped to her car, she said: “my entire body feels bruised.” Episodes of extended burnout like this greatly contribute to our frailty.

Most drugs, legal and illegal, increase dopamine making you feel excited and rewarded. They also increase the heart rate, shallow breathing, and tension. Thus drug use pits two different modules of the brain against one another. One finds the drug exhilarating and overstimulating, and the other finds it depleting and impoverishing. As mammals we are designed to choose whatever increases our dopamine and this is why, for most people, the fleeting reward of drug use outweighs the long-term costs.  Drug use tricks the pleasure centers of the brain into being delighted at the cost of tightening the vices around our chakras. Within a couple of hours the dopamine dips below default and the person feels understimulated and restless, causing them to want to use the drug again. This is called drug abuse, but it is actually abuse of the body and mind.

I thought I would always crave cigarettes and alcohol, but diaphragmatic retraining took away the urges. In fact, paced breathing has been shown by studies to help addicts maintain sobriety (Elliott & Edmonson, 2006). Cigarettes and alcohol brought so much relief to me before, but since I have been breathing diaphragmatically, they no longer lead to the feeling of relief. I believe that this is because there is now little if anything to relieve. Instead, cigarettes make my body feel weak and alcohol makes me feel slow and tired.

There is a growing community of people that use drugs to achieve entheogenic or spiritual growth. Sadly almost all of these people are oblivious to their shallow breathing when doing drugs. This is why most heavy trips are bad trips, even if the person doesn’t realize it. I believe that if you want to do drugs, you should only do them while paced breathing. Otherwise they will inevitably increase the extent of bracing going on under your level of awareness. Drugs should only be used under the condition of complete calm, otherwise they will unhinge your emotional well-being. However, I do recommend you take a drug for the following exercise.

Stress Activity #3: Habituate to the Sensations from an Energy Drink
Commit a full day to experimenting with your body’s reaction to caffeine. There are many caffeinated beverages out there from soda, to coffee to Red Bull or Monster. Purchase one, and go home and drink some of it. Caffeine, taurine, and other alkaloids lead to increased tension in various unobserved modules. Focus on these strong sensations. They may involve buzzing, crackling, heat or cold, and they may come in waves. Don’t fight the waves. If you breathe mindfully through the pain clawing at your innards you will dispel it. This exercise will amplify otherwise subliminal tension so that you can address it. You can combine this exercise with the interoception exercises in the next chapter. I do not recommend regular use of energy drinks. Clinical studies show that long-term use can result in significant negative health effects.

A number of drugs including hallucinogenics, dissociatives and psychedelics can induce temporary psychosis. Profoundly disturbing states of nightmarish terror, fear of overdose, or “ultimate entrapment” are commonly reported. A “bad trip” is not physical and emotional pain caused by a drug. It is preexisting pain from bodily tension that is unmasked by the drug. I think that any bad trip, can be reversed by 30 minutes of paced breathing. Mental health specialists have been searching for a form of treatment that can be administered to patients shortly after overdose, horrific trauma, or panic attack. I believe that 30 minutes of deep, paced breathing should be used in such clinical settings because it has the power to abolish these states and reverse the formation of traumatic memories.

I have a friend that smokes concentrated THC every day, smokes cigarettes hourly, and drinks between 10 and 15 drinks a night. Every night. This sounds like a living hell to most people. But few people realize that doing less than this is just a proportionately smaller version of that hell. I have watched this woman’s good looks erode over the span of just a few years. Every time I see her, the squinting and sneering is further entrenched. The poor gal is in constant emotional pain driven by her withdrawal symptoms. She once described her pain to me as claws and teeth, tugging at her internal organs, devouring her from the inside out. I believe this is an insightful description of the chakra-like modules of an addict.

Videogames, Violent Movies, and Loud Music Contribute to Stress

There are many forms of overstimulation that we form unhealthy attachments to. I myself was addicted to videogames, violent movies, and loud music. Just as with drugs we become addicted to the dopamine and adrenaline that they produce and the fleeting thrill causes us to ignore the low level panic.

Traditional hunter-gatherers living in nature had very low stimulation levels 95% of the time. They were out in nature. Today we plug into many streams of overstimulation that promote thrill seeking and hyperactivity. Videos of street fights, “epic fails,” people getting injured, horror movies, and other forms of sensory assault are some of the most popular videos online. As with pornography, these intense but damaging experiences make us dissatisfied with our real lives. Social media use, video games, and the violent nature of modern movies and television fragment attention and foster a gambling mindset that causes us to become addicted to short-term thrills. This has been documented to decrease the capacity for concentration and the kind of work that is necessary to thrive in the modern professional sector.

Almost any wild mammal placed in a nightclub or a movie theater would frantically try to escape. Ironically, these are the places we go to relax even though our innate senses want to retreat from loud sounds, bright lights, and quick moment. Even children’s movies are hysterically paced and feature constant calamity and pandemonium. A large proportion of children are incapable of breathing through their noses under these conditions. Over stimulation in these forms tricks our bodies into thinking that we are preparing for tremendous amounts of exercise, even though we are usually sitting on our backsides. Instead of using up these stress hormones for active movement, we stew in them, allthewhile grimacing, startling, and protracting our necks.

When you are watching a suspenseful movie where the main character is risking their life, and there are big stakes notice how somewhere deep down inside of you, you hold a conviction that says: “Don’t take a full, long breath or else you will put the protagonist of the movie in jeopardy.” Do you see how absurd this situation is? The fear of breathing properly is our most limiting belief. At the theater or on your couch pull out your breathing pacemaker, dim the screen and override this tendency as you continue to watch. While you witness the character experience peril, breathe long, slow breaths.

Most videogames create a suspenseful situation where you must react quickly to keep your character from being hurt or killed. This situation recruits the fast acting areas of the brain such as the amygdala and basal ganglia to help perform the perilous button pressing. Because these unconscious brain areas think that their actions are dire they contribute to the activation of the sympathetic system. This is why most videogame playing is frenzied and agitated. Despite your full attention, and best efforts, you watch as your character is torn to shreds before your eyes. Having to start a level from the beginning is frustrating and affectively detrimental. Each decrement in the character’s life bar causes a startle, and each death contributes, ever so slightly, to one’s background hum of anxiety. Don’t believe me? Just watch a toddler or an old person try to play.

Game designers should create games where people can go into a state of flow, but are not constantly punished by arbitrary rules. In many games you can reduce the difficulty setting. But major game developers avoid creating a “freeplay” mode because they are concerned that if the game is not challenging enough, they will lose sales. This is unfortunate. Every game should have a punish-free mode, and digital worlds should be places to relax, explore, and fantasize. Nonviolent, friendly videogames do exists and I recommend you search for them.

Videogames have been shown to increase cortisol levels, bolster aggressive affect, and reduce prosocial behavior (Anderson & Bushman , 2001). Most of my friends that play videogames act breathless and panicked afterwards. This in turn drives them to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol during gaming breaks. Playing an hour of competitive online matches would strip almost anyone of their composure and undermine their autonomic balance. My friends don’t realize it but this turns them into the stereotype of the high-strung geek.

It is worth noting that many studies have shown that just reducing television volume can vastly reduce the sympathetic stress response to violent movies, television, and games. When you turn your speakers down a few decibels you will notice this too. Simply reducing the volume can vastly reduce the uneasiness you feel after a two hour action movie.

Playing competitive videogames, watching action flicks, and listening to my headphones too loud severely dysregulated me. Just like drug use, the intense stimulation causes us to completely disregard the panic signals that our body is sending us. Performing paced breathing while engaging in these activities is an excellent way to learn to retain your composure as you are inundated with stimulus. If you keep this up you will get to the point where you can breathe through your nose at 5 breaths per minute in a loud theater, digital firefight, or busy nightclub for hours at a time. It doesn’t matter which club or bar you are in, if you are breathing at 5 breaths per minute, you are automatically the coolest cat there.

Breathing easy equals instant street credibility. Chronic overstimulation on the other hand, will turn you into a goofy, mouthbreathing nerd. I have a close friend that is street smart, tough and urbane. A lot of people that I know want to emulate him because they think he is cool. He has been in a gang all of his adult life, dresses in all blue, is always in and out of jail, drinks daily, smokes weed daily, and has “gangsta crips” tattooed on his neck. Hearing him talk in his sleep after passing out on the couch showed me that his lifestyle is not as cool as it is cracked up to be. I have heard him moan: “Stop, no, stop… mama, mama… help mama, help me… mama… mama!”

Some things that are breathtaking are actually good for us. But we need to be able to differentiate the scenic overlook from the horror flick.

Conclusion: Exercise is the Best Antistress Tool

There is a huge corpus of research documenting the many benefits that regular exercise has for us. A growing body of evidence shows that exercise in general strengthens our biochemical resilience to stress, bolsters self-esteem, and is an effective treatment for depression and anxiety (Babyak et al., 2000).  Some studies indicate that exercise may increase life expectancy and the overall quality of life (Gremeaux, 2012). Exercise strengthens joints, muscles, and bones. It enhances body image, and increases self-esteem. Exercise also stimulates the breathing musculature forcing you to strengthen your diaphragm and expand its range of motion.

Exercise feels stressful. This is why people dread it. It leads to a small stress response and increments in cortisol and adrenaline. However, mounting a small stress response to exercise repeatedly, will diminish your stress response to subsequent exercise. In other words, the more you exercise the less stressful it becomes. Exercise also diminishes your stress response to a range of other stressors. Exercise is the good type of stress, and it actually relieves the bad type. This is partly because after exercise stress crashes. For instance, it is known that blood concentration levels of cortisol rebound (fall off) rapidly. On the other hand, cortisol rebound after social stress is very slow. Exercise strengthens the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, teaching them how to handle heavy loads, and how to recover from them rapidly.

Exercise is a potent antidepressant and anxiolytic that makes us feel significantly less affected by negative events. Physical exertion, aerobic and anaerobic, results in something called endorphin release. Beta-endorphin is a neurohormone that is released into the bloodstream from the pituitary gland during exercise. Endorphins attach themselves to specific receptor sites in the brain that affect our perception of well-being and in large amounts create the feeling of euphoria. Endorphins are the body’s way of rewarding us for exerting ourselves. Endorphins not only give you a sense of pleasure they also suppress appetite, elevate mood, increase memory retention, learning ability, immune activity, and decrease sleep disturbances. The endorphin release during exercise is one reason why running around the block once or twice can make you come across as highly relaxed just before a meeting, date, or party.

Aerobic exercise results in increased creation of new brain cells (neurogenesis) in the areas of the brain that are known to shrink in people with depression. Nerve growth factors like GDNF (glial-derived neurotrophic factor) and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) increase in with exercise. These growth factors cause neuron branches to grow, and make new connections. They also reduce susceptibility to degeneration. It is no wonder sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for neurodegenerative illness in humans. If you don’t exercise to improve health, fitness, or appearance, then do it to increase the quality of your level of consciousness. You can extinguish chronic stress by exercising every day. It enhances dopamine and the feel good neuromodulators while having none of the downsides of drugs, alcohol, and chaotic entertainment.

Unspent, negative energy will inevitably be funneled toward the bracing of your diaphragm. This makes it so that each inhalation and exhalation are powered by a tense claw. Intense cardiovascular exercise that requires heavy breathing will force you to loosen that claw and expand the diaphragm’s range so that you can get enough air. Additionally, because the exercise thoroughly worked out your breathing musculature, after you finish, the musculature needs to rest and doesn’t have the energy to revert to its usual pattern of heavy tension. This is another positive benefit from aerobic exercise, it is largely incompatible with diaphragmatic bracing.

To stay motivated to exercise it is important to make it fun and varied. Listen to a book on tape, a podcast, or your favorite music. Try different forms of exercise: power walking, jogging, sprinting, hiking, swimming, cycling, skipping, slo-mo running. Gymnastics…

Dog trainers and dog obedience professionals know that daily exercise is the most important aspect of getting a dog to do what you want it to. Being deprived of exercise without an outlet for their natural energy increases neurotic, defiant, and angry behavior. Wolves often travel tens of miles daily while foraging. Dogs, humans, and most mammals for that manner, were designed for this kind of sustained, daily activity. However, many people rarely bother to walk their dogs. Professionals dog behaviorists like Cesar Millan argue that it is abusive not to walk a dog every day for a bare minimum of sixty minutes (Millan & Peltier, 2006). Cesar walks his dogs in a large pack for at least 4 hours a day. He doesn’t do this for their physical health as much as he does it for their mental health.

You need a daily outlet for your natural energy just as much as any other mammal. Every day you skip cardiovascular exercise you are abusing yourself and compounding the stress, social defeat, and pain. Getting out for a walk, and using the antifrailty techniques illustrated in Chapters 14, 15, and 16 will free you from your self-imposed kennel.

If you have access to a pool or body of water then you should consider treading water. Treading water is near the top of the list of exercises when it comes to calories burned per minute. The amazing thing is that it is sustainable because it happens in a weightless environment where there is very little stress on your joints. Every inch of your body is working while you tread and unlike other cardio routines the arms, shoulders, neck and torso are completely engaged. Also it builds muscle. There are dozens of kick and arm variations you can use. Best of all, you can bring a phone, or tablet outside, prop it up on the ground using a towel, and use it to watch a 20 minute program or two from inside the pool.

Chapter 20: Bullet Points

  • Virtually all drug use leads to withdrawal symptoms that weaken you as a person.
  • People who mix socializing with psychoactive drugs unknowingly brace their chakras for sustained periods.
  • Videogames, loud music, and violent or suspenseful entertainment lead to low level panic that can become chronic.
  • Don’t fear stress. Apprehension of stress makes it more physiologically detrimental.
  • You don’t want to provoke your brains threat response, you want to elicit the challenge response.
  • Appraise sources of stress as challenges rather than threats.
  • Regular exercise releases endorphins and enhances mood keeping our minds from running our bodies into the ground.