Your Brain on Stress

What happens to your brain on stress?

Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.” – Marcus Aurelius

The idea behind physical training is to induce a degree of stress in order to stimulate your body to adapt and become more capable of coping with that stress in the future. Strong bodies are capable of difficult, stressful physical tasks with much greater ease than an untrained individual.

Think of your body as a vehicle. Physical training is a way of making your vehicle faster, more powerful and more maneuverable. The component that is going to matter most if this vehicle is truly tested, however, is the driver. What good is a fast car if the guy behind the wheel forgets how to steer as soon as the road gets sketchy?

If you are going to be facing combat in the military, step into a cage as a fighter or take part in any highly competitive sport and your training has neglected the ability of your mind to perform with resilience under stress, you’ve been doing yourself a disservice and your performance could be much more unreliable than you had imagined.

Your mind does not recall skills equally. Motor patterns and predictive reasoning ability are ingrained to varying degrees in your neocortex. Whether and how well you can recall them depends largely on how heavily that skill has been engrained, what level of stress that skill has been engrained under and how much stress you’re under while you’re trying to recall it.

What you know in a grappling session with your buddy, on the weapons range or in a climbing gym four feet above a bouldering pad is not necessarily what you will know after you’ve touched gloves in a fight, been engaged in a firefight or climbed your way to a fingertip hold above a fall that might break bones.

Training the body for resilience has been a practice for millennia. Various people have also figured out that the mind can be similarly developed. It hasn’t been until recent decades that people have started to figure out why.

I recently came across an article about a doctor from Yale Medical School named Andy Morgan who has conducted some interesting research on what is happening in the brains of men who have been trained for mental resiliency to stress as compared to men without any such training.

There is a neurochemical in the brain called neuropeptide Y. NPY is an abundant amino acid that helps regulate blood pressure, appetite, memory and learning. It also plays a crucial role in tempering alarm, anxiety and the effects of stress hormones on the brain.

What Dr. Morgan learned is that men from the Army’s Special Forces and Navy’s Diver community have significantly higher levels of NPY in their brains than men in conventional branches of the military who had not undergone any of the stress inoculation training characteristic of military special operations.

Just like bodies that have been strengthened through physical training, the minds of these men have been developed to be much more capable of buffering the stress response and performing well under pressure.

There were other differences. The stress-inoculated men had greater levels of a hormone called DHEA, which buffers the effects of cortisol and aids a brain region called the hippocampus in spatial reasoning and memory. They also had abnormally low rates of heart rate variability, or HRV, which is a means of determining the level of balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system.  Those lower rates of HRV, called “metronomic heartbeats,” indicate strong sympathetic responses during stressors.

Dr. Morgan observed these men as they went through various forms of training inherent to their community. The soldiers were undergoing Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape school. The men in the Navy were in selection training at the Navy Diving and Salvage Training Center. Of those going through selection training, Morgan also found a notable variation. Those with the highest levels of NPY and DHEA performed the best and generally graduated towards the top of their class. Those with the lowest levels did the most poorly.

This brings to mind questions of inherent capacities. Certainly, there is some degree of genetic predisposition in the equation. Ultimately, are these men successful in this type of training because they already have high levels of NPY and DHEA, or do they develop high levels of it as a result of their training? I haven’t been able to find any studies done on the before-and-after levels of these chemicals as the men progress through their training.

I’d say that, like any other capacity, there is a genetic set-point and the capacity can be developed or allowed to stagnate from there. We aren’t all built with the right joint ratios and muscle types to have a nationally competitive squat in powerlifting, nor is it likely that we’ve all got equal levels of NPY and DHEA from childhood. But it’s a matter of personal actualization. Just as you can benefit physically from strength training regardless of your starting point or ultimate potential, we’ve all got the capacity to develop mental resiliency to stress.

What are you doing to facilitate this? If you’re putting in time in the gym, have you ever taken the time to consider ways of developing the capacity of your mind as well?

It’s not as simple as doing deadlifts or kettlebell swings. Certainly, physical stress can be blended with the mental version, but this isn’t the only way. Think of something that scares you. It’s likely something novel that you haven’t experienced before, or just something that makes your skin crawl with anxiety at the very thought. Public speaking perhaps.

Tim Ferriss talks about a number of drills in his book for this purpose. One of his favorites is to simply lay down flat on your back in a public place. Try it sometime. You are going to be very uncomfortable. This is emotional stress, and you can train yourself to become resistant to it.

Whatever it is you come up with, find something today to push yourself into mental discomfort. While you’re in the moment, really examine what it’s doing to your body and your mind. The racing heart, the sweaty palms, the erratic thoughts. Are these things really necessary, or can you work past them? With time, you can, and you will be one step closer to what Aurelius calls “a mind free from perturbation and unimpeded.”

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