The Biology of Bliss


When do you feel the most alive? Is it when you're spending time with your family? Or maybe it's dancing on the beach with a fire and some good music under the starlight? Perhaps you're an adrenaline junkie that feels the rush as the plane door opens and the wind hits your face before jumping.

Life is about living, and we're all on a roller coaster of negative, neutral, and positive each and every day. Our relationship with stress frequently determines our overall happiness and satisfaction.

Stressors are everywhere, and it's easy to become overwhelmed and shut down. But that's life, and most of us wouldn't have it any other way. We prefer stress to boredom because it is more exciting. And the good news is that if we learn to accept stress, it can make us stronger, smarter, and happier.

While it is true that the stress response can be harmful, in many cases, stress hormones actually induce growth and release chemicals into the body that rebuild cells, synthesize proteins, and boost immunity, leaving the body stronger and healthier than before. Conscously engaging in activities that promote hormesis can help to strengthen the immune system, helping you to stand tall when the winds of stress try to knock you down.

sad girl reading news

To understand stress, we must first understand our wiring. Here's an example. Do you remember the positives or the negatives of the day when you fall asleep at night and reflect on the day?

According to Laura Carstensen, a psychology professor at Stanford University, people are more likely to remember their negative experiences than their positive ones. In fact, studies show "bad news outweighs good news by as much as seventeen negative news reports for every one good news report" because the brain is more predisposed to recalling the "bad stuff" rather than the "good stuff." 

But why is that?

Because negative news exploits the oldest part of our brain.

This brain region, called the "old brain," includes the brain stem, medulla, pons, reticular formation, thalamus, cerebellum, amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus, and these areas regulate essential survival functions such as breathing, moving, resting, feeding, emotions, and memory. 

Basically, the "old brain" helps us stay alert in case of danger and it keeps the autonomic nervous system running smoothly.

As hunter-gatherers, our forefathers were constantly on the move in order to survive. Nature's elements have the potential to change at any time, and because the amygdala is hardwired to constantly alert the mind to threats, it is linked to the body's fear and stress responses. This makes sense, given that early humans' lives were short and difficult, with an average life expectancy of only 25 years.

In essence, the amygdala is very good at what it does: it regulates emotions and behaviors while using an estimated two-thirds of its neurons to detect negativity in the environment and quickly encode it into long-term memory. Simply put, the amygdala is constantly on the lookout for real or imagined threats to our motivations.

This vigilance explains why the brain can become like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones, and why encoding positive experiences into long-term memory takes more time and attention.

🧭 The digital world 🧭

According to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, there is a five-tier model of human motivation composed of the following needs: physiological, security, belongingness and love, esteem, and self-actualization—arranged from bottom to top of the hierarchy.

According to the theory, needs at the bottom must be met before people focus on needs at the top.

Maslows Pyramid

Fast forward to today's digital world; we don't always have to look over ourshoulders for animal attacks, poisonous berries, or freezing weather. Instead, we are increasingly vulnerable to the power of social media and the challenges it presents, including a newfound desire to increase self-esteem and social standing without compromising our integrity and authenticity.

According to research, people who spend a lot of time on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are more likely to have stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms. Not a surprise.

Negativity from the content that we consume hacks the stress response circuitry of the amygdala to signal support from the adrenals with a well-designed cocktail of stress hormones that inspire action: adrenaline, norepinephrine, and cortisol.

Adrenaline, also known as the "fight or flight hormone," is produced by the adrenal glands and causes an increase in heart rate and a surge of energy to focus on and respond to the stressor.

Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline in that it is released by both the adrenal gland and the brain. When it is produced, the body is aroused, resulting in a feeling of being more awake, aware, and responsive.

Finally, cortisol enters the picture and begins to suppress the immune system while also raising blood pressure and decreasing sexual drive. When a threat is perceived, the amygdala releases cortisol, the "stress" hormone. Unlike the previous two, it may take several minutes to take effect, gradually creating a state of feeling unsaf

As these hormones are released, the body begins to balance fluids and blood pressure while also regulating non-critical body functions such as reproductive drive, immunity, digestion, and growth. As a result, we switch gears from 'rest and digest' to "fight or flight."

Make the unfamiliar familiar;
make the unknown known;
make the uncomfortable comfortable;
believe the unbelievable.

Charles Glassman

Wired to fire

When the amygdala is overstimulated by stress hormones, judgment suffers. Even in the face of imagined danger, the subconscious will attempt to return to a state of equilibrium where it feels "safe." The subconscious mind will seek the shortest path to meet its needs, which can lead to unhealthy habits like procrastination, pornography, and binge-eating.

Because these unhealthy habits frequently provide temporary relief and positive emotions such as safety, certainty, and comfort, we tend to repeat them, eventually forming a patterned response to stress. As a result, an addiction to negativity develops, and behaviors can deteriorate. The more compelling the toxic content is, the stronger its impact on the mind and body.

When the brain's pleasure and reward centers are overstimulated on a regular basis as a result of chronic negativity and stress, depression and apathy can result. The body begins to pay closer attention to these stressors in order to receive a surge of neurochemicals that will awaken and enliven it.

With the news blaring doom, gloom, and dread at us, and the pressure to project a "perfect life" on social media, understanding how to filter out the noise and achieve inner peace is critical.

The way of a superior man is three-fold: virtuous, he is free from anxieties; wise, he is free from perplexities; bold, he is free from fear.

Confucious

Rites of Passage

While stress is well-known for having a negative impact on one's overall well-being, there is one type of stress that has a positive outcome: positive stress.

Stress can be beneficial for short periods of time when induced in a controlled manner, and resilience can be developed. Low-level stressors increase neurotrophin production, which strengthens neural connections, while long-term benefits include increased focus and motivation, as well as the ability to persevere and overcome life's challenges.

Adversity and positive adaptation are two elements that define resilience, and r ites of passage are used to develop strength and resilience in many cultures around the world. These practices, provide an opportunity to overcome adversity, pain, and the fear of death in a safe and supportive environment, often surrounded by elders.

For example, in the Brazilian Amazon, Satere-Mawé elders gather bullet ants, which are known for having one of the most painful bites in the animal kingdom, and insert dozens of them into a pair of gloves for young initiates. The boys are then required to chant and dance while their hands are encased in the gloves for ten minutes. Once the pain has subsided, they are considered men and warriors of the tribe.

On the other side of the ocean, the Massai tribe has an ancient tradition of ushering their young warriors into manhood by sending them into the wild to kill a lion with a spear, the standard for becoming a true warrior and protector of the tribe. This rite of passage, which is no longer practiced, was performed both individually and in groups.

How about down in the South Pacific? The Naghol tribe in Fiji has their children bungee jumping. Boys become men by jumping off a wooden tower around 100 feet high during the yam harvest, a tradition that dates back fifteen centuries. They climb to the top, tie a vine rope around their ankles, and leap, with the older men in the background supporting the ceremony. The goal is to get as close to the ground as possible without hitting it.

Coping with Stress

Here in the United States, where rites of passage are few and far between, there is a growing trend toward participating in "positive stress" activities.

Hot yoga, fasting, and ice baths are among the most popular activities. While fasting and ice baths are relatively easy to implement, the simplest way to begin with "positive stress" is to take a daily cold shower. It takes a little bit of effort and a fair amount of willpower. The best part is that it is always uncomfortable in the beginning. But that's the point. 

Cold showers are a type of hydrotherapy that have been used to treat a variety of ailments for centuries. Thermalism, which was well-known for its beneficial effects discovered by the ancient Greeks, used water at different temperatures to help relieve muscle fatigue and other health issues. One of the primary benefits is increased circulation which is a foundational precept of a robust immune system.

When you take cold showers on a daily basis, or even alternate between hot and cold showers, you force your body's capillaries to expand and contract. The sympathetic nervous system is activated in a controlled environment, and blood levels of beta-endorphin and noradrenaline rise.

To begin, start your shower with hot water, then switch to cold water and see if you can stand in it for 2-3 minutes once a day. Most protocols suggest doing this for at least a few weeks to see results, but you should feel better after the first one.

Conclusion

In a world where many are overwhelmed and overstimulated, taking an active stance and rewiring the brain is critical for health and well-being. It doesn't take much effort or time to get started with a daily cold shower, just a little discipline and some commitment.

Aside from those, there are many other ways to deal with stress and adversaries that don't involve animal bites, hunting, or near-death experiences.

We probably wouldn't be here as a species if our "old brain" didn't grant us the superpowers of our internal alert system. Test yourself and see if you can improve your stress responses by doing at least one thing every day. We can't control what happens, but we can learn to control how we react, as the saying goes.

References

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Aschbacher, K., Epel, E., Wolkowitz, O. M., Prather, A. A., Puterman, E., & Dhabhar, F. S. . (2012). Maintenance of a positive outlook during acute stress protects against pro-inflammatory reactivity and future depressive symptoms . Brain, behavior, and immunity, 26(2), 346–352.
Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. . (2013). Rethinking stress: the role of mindsets in determining the stress response . Journal of personality and social psychology, 104(4), 716–733.
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Ha, I take the hottest showers it feels like that would be torture to me to get in there and take a cold shower I might do some slight screaming. But overall just thinking about this article and what I read I do feel that I tend to be more of a positive person and reflect on the positives and be very forgiving. I like to stay in touch with people and reach out to them and text them or just send them words of encouragement throughout the week and make sure that I keep that bond with friends and family. Especially now more than ever it’s important to check on those that you haven’t heard from in a while and just be encouraging to them because you don’t know what they’re going through and that might just make their whole week.

I feel like since I began focusing on positivity in my life it has really helped how I cope with stressors. The concept of introducing "positive stress" is very intriguing to me, a friend of mine takes cold showers as a sort of meditative practice and I find it interesting that was mentioned here. I have always been curious about starting that and the concept of seeing if you can take the cold water for 2-3 mins at a time seems like a gradual way to build yourself up to that. I have been practicing intermittent fasting and I do get a greater sense of gratitude for my nutrition now than I ever have before.

I haven't tried the cold shower trick. But, it makes sense so I should give it a go sometime

Loving the positive vibes. Lately I have been doing a lot of yoga and meditation and then with some Journaling and I feel like this has really been helpful. I’ve encouraged my younger son to start doing it as well on a daily journal and draw pictures to go with what he was writing. It’s fun to share our thoughts from the day and talk about our experiences I feel like this has also been a connecting experience for us to talk about some things that might have upset us and how we can work through them. Maybe something in our personal life or maybe even some thing we saw on the news. hope this helps somebody as well.

Super inspiring! ready to change my amygdala! I've gone through phases of cold showers and have always felt better for it!

Yes to the journaling!  I’ve learned in past classes like acting, where psychology was incorporated, positive affirmations are great for your mental, emotional, and physical health.  I agree with doing it before bed. I also think a good time would be first thing in the morning, so you start your day on a positive note. 

I love all of this. I've been journaling for years but taking a cold shower is new to me. It's something that I am willing to try. It's 2-3 minutes. I may be jumping ahead of myself but I think I can handle it and if it makes me feel better, BONUS! Thank for sharing.

I LOVE THIS!!!!

I think we can all tend to a bit more positive, especially these days. 2 simple things like taking a quick cold shower is definitely one of them! I am also going to start writing things down that I am grateful for each night before bed. Thanks so much for sharing this

All right so would not be into taking the cold shower because actually taking a nice hot shower really helps me to calm down and relaxes me so that’s the opposite. At the end of the day I’ve never known that it was scientifically proven to help you to be more positive but I do like to write down all the things that I’m thankful for and that does help me to feel a lot better. Especially with all the stuff that’s going on the news it’s easier to fill weighed down or feel negative so that does help me to remember everything that I have to be thankful for. I didn’t realize that negative experiences had such a bigger impact on people.I do try to be more positive for those around me and a shoulder to lean on and an ear if they need it for someone to listen. Finding a calming hobby is also very beneficial!

True. 👍🏼 A negative event can take over our minds in a way that can adversely affect our work, our relationships, our health, and our happiness.

Fantastic article 👍. Cold shower and ice-baths have transformed my life and are the number 1 thing I would recommend to anyone looking to become more resilient towards stress.

For me, the best time for cold showers is usually around 2-3 am. Or anytime I wake up at night.