Choosing Hope-Based Thinking
to Combat the Neurological Impact of Stress
These days, you likely find yourself stressing more than usual over the uncertainties of the future.
Uncertainties that threaten the expectations you’ve created for yourself, your family, and your career. For years, you imagined an ideal version of your life. And you worked hard to follow the path you thought would lead you there. However, as time moves forward, you may have found yourself adjusting your expectations as life’s events have not fully complied.
When it comes to expectations, people often experience more stress and anxiety as they work to fulfill them, than they do peace and joy. And that is because expectations are often a form of fear. They carry with them timelines, minimum requirements, deadlines, criticism, disappointment, and pressure. All of which increase stress levels, and cause the brain to react as if there is a true and looming threat.
How does your brain react to the stress that comes with expectations?
Stress is a state of physiological arousal initiated by a perceived threat, which disrupts homeostatic functioning. When the perceived threat is processed through higher-order thinking in the cerebral cortex, it signals the activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis is the communication network between three endocrine glands—the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands. The hypothalamus, located in the center of the brain, activates the entire autonomic nervous system to release stress hormones including epinephrine and cortisol, which surge the body with the energy to survive the perceived threat. This threat need not be a true, physical or psychological threat. A fear of failing to achieve a set of expectations could be interpreted in the same way a fear of dying is processed.
Both trigger the body’s survival response.
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) has two branches called the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which are designed to regulate the flight-or-fight response, a term coined by Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon, which describes the body’s physiological reactivity from stress.
The stress hormones of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline), and cortisol (the most predominant glucocorticoid), are produced by the adrenal glands. They flood every cell in the body and surpass the blood brain barrier, which signals an alert and causes physiological changes to occur and activates the body’s survival mode.
Once the threat is no longer perceived, the hypothalamus generally signals to the body to restore homeostasis, allowing the system functions. However, if this stress cycle does not deactivate, the ongoing effects of stress continue to cause the emotional symptoms of trauma in one's life. Which is more likely to happen when fear-based thinking is common practice. An ongoing threat of failed expectations or long-term feelings of disappointment could continue the stress response, and therefore keep the brain in a chronic state of survival.
What are the physiological and emotional impacts of stress on the body?
The impacts of stress on the body are many. The Autonomic Nervous System causes the body to experience digestive issues, increased heart rate, glucose stimulated by the liver, and a stimulated gallbladder among others. Memory is also affected and can be decreased during times of high stress. And feelings of anxiousness and depression increase, which can decrease energy, motivation, and increase feelings of hopelessness.
The good news is that when it comes to stress and expectations, you can choose hope, which protects your brain and body from the negative impact of stress. Hope-based thinking is the opposite of having grand expectations. It is a way of navigating your own life as it happens, rather than placing time restraints on each goal you create. Thinking about the future, and making plans is healthy. But expecting for each plan to take place in the exact way you imagine increases the chance for disappointment and stress.
How can essential oils support Hope-Based thinking?
Essential oils can produce over 10,000 different odors, which can affect the hundreds of thousands of chemical reactions in your brain. The aroma of essential oils is immediately recognized by the olfactory glands, which communicate with the limbic system. The limbic system is involved with the parasympathetic nervous system, which as we discussed above, controls emotional memory and communication throughout various regions of the brain. Essential oil compounds also affect the autonomic nervous system which controls the automatic responses in your body such as the respiratory, circulatory, and digestive systems. When it comes to hope-based thinking, essential oils support your brain’s process of minimizing the effects of survival mode brought on by stress, and allowing you to reach a level of homeostasis. It is in this place where you are able to be more present, rather than fearing the future.
The essential oils that are most effective in supporting hope-based thinking and mitigating the stress/ fear response are Bergamot and Turmeric. Circuminoids, which are found in Turmeric, have been shown in research to protect the hippocampus and improve the fear response. By simply inhaling Turmeric essential oil, you can minimize the physiological and psychological stress responses. Turmeric has also been shown to support memory, which is often affected by an increased stress response.
Bergamot essential oil is one that I personally used in my own research, when completing my doctoral dissertation on essential oils and the brain. I had participants who struggled with stress and trauma inhale Bergamot 4 times per day, each day. They showed improvements in their sleep, and decreased feelings of anxiousness and fear.
When it comes to stress and the impact stress has on your body and mind, it is important to find healthy ways of minimizing its impact on your body. This includes changing the way in which you perceive the future. Because whether you see it as something to be imagined and subsequently created, or something you should experience one day at a time, your outlook determines your stress response. By implementing essential oils into your daily routine, and choosing hope over fear, you could experience more joy in your life.
Learn more about Hope-Based thinking and my own personal experience when it comes to expectations and fear. Check out my Brain Talk and subscribe for more on essential oils and the brain.