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Stress Glossary

Science of Stress Glossary

 

What Is Stress?
“Stress occurs when an individual perceives that environmental demands tax or exceed his or her adaptive capacity.” -- Sheldon Cohen, et al., 2007.

 

That said, stress is a word that can mean many other things, with many slightly varying definitions. But for the purpose of this glossary, we are not talking about stress in terms of emphasis or physical mechanics; rather, we are referring to psychological stress. Put simply, psychological stress occurs when an event or situation is too much for an individual to handle.

 

This definition, while very accurate, is not very specific. Neither is stress. Stress is experienced in response to physical or psychological stimuli. Stress is experienced in anticipation of a big presentation, running late, or fighting with a spouse.

 

Although these situations are all different, the body’s physiological response to stress—the “fight or flight” response (or Sympathetic nervous system arousal)—is the same every time. Adrenaline begins pumping, the heart beats faster and breathing accelerates. The body gets ready for action—even when stressing out while sitting in traffic. The severity of the feelings of stress certainly varies depending on the situation, but the baseline physiological changes are always the same.

 

Recently “stress” has been excoriated in the United States because more and more research demonstrates the detrimental effects it has on the body and mind. Most often, stress is linked to heart disease, specifically the increased risk of high blood pressure and heart attack. Other conditions linked to stress include irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sleep disorders such as insomnia, depression, panic attacks, and diabetes, to name just a few.

 

Stress & Relaxation

Stress is an inevitable part of life. It's simply unavoidable. All too often we find ourselves in situations that automatically trigger our body's stress response—a physiological reaction that floods our bloodstream with adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress chemicals. And, unfortunately, regular exposure to the stress response takes a devastating toll on our heart, blood vessels, muscles, and even our brain—not to mention the unpleasant side-effects of tension, anxiety, and worry.

But there is some very good relaxation response.

As you can see in the following table, the relaxation response is literally the reverse of stress. And best of all, the relaxation response stops stress from affecting your body and your mind. The relaxation response has the all the power you need to be free from the grip of stress…if you know how to tap in and use it.

 

Stress Response:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased cardiac output
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Increased brain wave activity
  • Decrease in body temperature
  • Poor circulation (cold hands feet)
  • Increasded Perspiration
  • Fatigue
  • Unexplained muscle pain
  • Moodiness

 

Relaxation Response

  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased cardiac output
  • Decreased blood pressure
  • Decreased breathing rate
  • Enhanced cognition
  • Warming of body temperature
  • Improved circulation
  • Decreased perspiration
  • Increased energy
  • Balanced moods

 

Ways to Relieve Stress and Anxiety & Symptoms of Stress:

There are many possible symptoms of stress. Different people experience certain symptoms more strongly than others. Stress and anxiety can be felt in many ways and in response to many different events. You may feel anxious in the pit of your stomach, or it may be a nagging thought you can’t seem to get out of your head. However anxiety affects you, it is certain to be distracting, distressing, and possibly even debilitating. According to the Archives of General Psychiatry, almost 20 percent of Americans suffer from stress/anxiety.

All symptoms are caused by increased activity of the Sympathetic nervous system. (see definition of sympathetic and parasympathetic below).

 

Physical symptoms of anxiety and stress include:

  • Back pain
  • Muscle tension
  • High blood pressure
  • Weakened immune system
  • Sweating
  • Heartburn
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Tremors and twitches
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Pounding heart
  • Stomach upset or dizziness
  • Frequent urination or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath

 

Emotional symptoms of anxiety and stress include:

  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Watching for signs of danger
  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Anticipating the worst
  • Uptight
  • Feeling like a victim
  • Blue
  • Guilty
  • Shame
  • Feeling unfriendly
  • Hopeless about the future
  • Wanting to stay in bed
  • Feeling that other people don’t like them
  • Lonely

 

Thought patterns of anxiety and stress include:

  • Blaming self
  • Holding grudges
  • Thinking and Rethinking the same situation
  • Wishing you can turn your mind off
  • Judging others
  • Worrying
  • Thinking something is wrong with you
  • Needing to be right
  • Feeling out of control
  • Angry

 

Behavior symptoms of anxiety and stress include:

  • Alcohol
  • Taking tranquilizers or street drugs to change mood
  • Use of tobacco
  • Crying a lot
  • Talking a lot
  • Nail or cuticle biting
  • Sleep problems (too much or too little)
  • Trouble communicating
  • Avoiding responsibilities
  • Too much caffeine

 

When something stressful occurs, or you anticipate a stressful event, feeling stress and anxiety can make it difficult to focus or perform optimally. Whether you are nervous before giving a speech, giving a performance or worrying about why your daughter has missed her curfew, treating stress and anxiety symptoms is important in order to be able to control those feelings and complete everyday functions, rather than letting them take over.

Biofeedback meditation is clinically proven to reduce stress-related symptoms of stress/anxiety. With regular biofeedback meditation, people report feeling much less stress/anxiety, less irritability, and more calm.

 

Stress Management

Stress management is a broad term used to cover all of the various techniques that individuals use to reduce the harmful effects of stress. Healthy and effective stress management strategies include exercise, meditation, biofeedback, and massage. These techniques can all lead to feelings of relaxation and can reduce the negative impact that stress has on the body. The way that they do this is by engaging the body’s natural relaxation response.

 

Unfortunately, however, people use unhealthy strategies to manage their stress. Some examples of this include smoking, drinking alcohol, and comfort eating. These techniques can lead to temporary relief, but in the long run they do not address the root of the problem and can even lead to increased stress.

 

Allostatic Load

Allostatic load refers to the wear and tear on the body that results from either too much stress or inefficient management of stress. This could mean the body is:

 

  1. Not turning off the stress response when it is no longer needed,
  2. Not turning on an adequate response to stress in the first place, or,
  3. Getting used to the recurrence of the same stressor over and over again.

 

The term allostasis refers to the active process by which the body responds to daily events and maintains homeostasis (allostasis literally means “achieving stability through change”). It is a measure of healthy adaptability. The stress response, which is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, plays a necessary and important role in adaptation to our environments.

But chronic stressors or an inability to restore homeostasis after a stressor take a dramatic toll on your body’s ability to recuperate and renew. The job of the parasympathetic nervous system is impaired. Over time, if it is not counteracted with the relaxation response, the body’s response can cause cumulative strain on multiple organs and tissues, causing illness and disease.

 

Autonomic Nervous System

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the part of the body’s peripheral nervous system responsible for maintaining homeostasis, or balance. As opposed to the sensory nervous system, which regulates part of the body which we can control voluntarily (e.g. muscles), the ANS regulates functions which are mainly involuntary. Involuntary functions include heart rate, digestion, dilation and constriction of blood vessels, and hormone secretion, among others.

 

The ANS is primarily composed of two branches: the parasympathetic nervous aystem and the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic and parasympathetic branches constantly work in opposition to one another to achieve and maintain a balanced physiological state.

 

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, is the act of using the diaphragm while breathing to ensure a full deep breath. The diaphragm is a dome-shaped muscle located beneath the lungs. Using the diaphragm allows air to fill the lungs fully. This is the type of breathing that is used in most relaxation practices, including biofeedback and yoga.

 

In diaphragmatic breathing, the diaphragm contracts upon inhale. This flattens the dome shape, expands the belly forward, and pushing the lower ribs out to the sides. During the inhale, the upper chest and shoulders should remain still. During the exhale, the diaphragm relaxes and the lower ribs and belly move inward. This helps to expel all of the air from the lungs.

 

One way to learn to do diaphragmatic breathing correctly is to breathe with one hand on your belly and the other on your upper chest. When you inhale, your belly hand should move outward. When you exhale, it should move inward. The hand on your chest should remain still. A common problem associated with diaphragmatic breathing is that people tend to inhale and exhale too deeply too quickly. The goal is to fill your lungs slowly so that the breathing rate is dramatically reduced.

 

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Heart rate variability, or HRV, is considered by scientists and physicians to be an excellent non-invasive measurement of nervous system activity and heart health.

 

HRV can be calculated from basic pulse rate data. It refers to the tiny beat-to-beat variations in your heart rate. For example, the time between one beat and the next may be 1 second; the time from the 2nd beat to the 3rd beat may be .6 seconds.

The variation in time from one beat to the next is called HRV. The time between beats is called the inter-beat-interval (IBI). There are different ways to analyze the variations, but in its raw form, HRV is calculated by taking the standard deviation of the differences in the IBI. These differences are called SDNN, which stands for standard deviation of normal to normal intervals.

A great deal of research has shown that high HRV (i.e., high SDNN) is associated with better physical and mental health.

 

Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic system is the branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responsible for the body’s ability to recuperate and return to a balanced state (known as "homeostasis") after experiencing pain or stress. While the sympathetic system is also known as the "fight or flight" response, the parasympathetic is often called "relax and renew."

 

Interestingly, the parasympathetic functions in opposition to the sympathetic nervous system. When the sympathetic system activates in response to some sort of stressor, the parasympathetic reacts in turn to bring the body back to a state of equilibrium. The parasympathetic system is consistently active at a low level, but levels of activity increase when it is necessary to bring the body back to a balanced state from a state of elevated sympathetic activity.

 

The primary parasympathetic nerve is the vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve X. When active, the parasympathetic system slows down heart rate, dilates blood vessels, activates digestion, and stores energy. Unlike the sympathetic system, the parasympathetic response does not necessarily perform all of these functions at once, but selectively, as needed.

 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Do you suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)? Do your symptoms cause you stress? Experiencing a horrible trauma can lead to the development of PTSD. Symptoms include:

 

  • Reexperiencing the event
  • Avoiding people and things that might be reminders of the trauma
  • Increased arousal—feeling keyed up
  • Social impairment—at work or in personal relationships
  • Feeling emotionally numb

 

Essentially, your body and mind are unable to recuperate from the negative effects of an extreme stress. By continuing to relive it, you continue to activate your symptoms of PTSD.

 

Sometimes it can be hard to even get out of bed in the morning. PTSD sufferers can treat their stress by practicing and mastering the skill of biofeedback meditation.

 

Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA)

RSA is the natural variation in heart rate that is primarily driven by breathing patterns and the regulating influence of the vagus nerve on the heart. For example, inhaling inhibits the activity of the vagus nerve, increases heart rate, and decreases HRV. Exhaling activates the vagus nerve, decreases heart rate, and increases HRV.

 

RSA is also influenced by the baroreceptors (pressure sensors that help regulate your heart rate and blood pressure) and the limbic system in the brain (your emotion center).

 

RSA is considered an accurate window into the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The greater the “rhythmic” variation in heart rate, the healthier the system. A simple way to think about this is, if at rest heart rate is varying between 80 and 60 beats per minute (bpm), that is better than varying between 65 and 70 bpm. High RSA (more variation) is indicative of resilience and health; low RSA is indicative of vulnerability to stress and disease.

 

RSA naturally decreases with age. Interestingly, it is possible to increase RSA through slow breathing, meditation and exercise.

 

Stress And Depression
Do you have a sadness that won’t lift? Are you overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness? Hopelessness? Do you have trouble getting out of bed in the morning?

 

For millions, depression makes it very hard to get through the day.

 

  • Depression is estimated to affect almost 10 percent of Americans.
  • Once diagnosed, depression is often treated with medications.
  • Recent studies show that some antidepressants fair no better than placebos.
  • Many people are now looking to alternative therapies.

 

Stress plays a role in both causing and worsening depression. In fact, dealing with depression while simultaneously trying to handle the demands of every day life is in itself stressful. This stress makes the depression worse, and a pattern develops that can be difficult to emerge from. It’s time to take control of that stress.

 

Bio/neurofeedback is a drug-free solution to effectively treat the stress that aggravates depression. Fifteen minutes of biofeedback meditation per day provides you with much-needed relaxation. Over time, this can lead not only to reduced stress in the moment, but also less reactivity to stress overall.

 

Stress and Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) affects almost 60 million Americans, according to WebMD. IBS can be painful and tiring and can lead to severe distress in the people it affects. You may have tried all sorts of treatments, but unfortunately, because the cause is not well understood, it can be hard to find something that works.

 

Stress has consistently been shown to be related to IBS. Because your symptoms. And then the symptoms themselves can be stressful! This in turn makes everything snowball. By getting rid of the stress that leads to painful symptoms, many sufferers can find relief.

 

With regular biofeedback meditation you will learn to relax and make it easier for you to cope with stress and stressful situations. This, in turn, may help decrease your discomfort.

 

Stress and Migraine

The pain of a migraine is excruciating. You may feel it coming, but feel powerless to stop it. And when it hits, a migraine can make it impossible to function.

  • 29.5 million people in the United States suffer from migraines, according to the National Headache Foundation.
  • Treatments commonly used include medications, which can have uncomfortable side effects, as well as relaxation training.
  • Migraines can be triggered by a number of environmental factors, including stress.

For many people, stress is a cause of migraines. But whether or not stress starts the migraine or simply makes you more vulnerable, it is clearly important to treat it.

Biofeedback meditation has been proven to help you combat stress that may lead to or exacerbate your migraine pain.

Fifteen minutes a day can lead to feeling calmer, less irritable, and most importantly, less stressed, and reduce inflammation.

 

Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system, better known as the “flight or flight” response, is the branch of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that controls the body’s reaction to physical and emotional stressors.

The sympathetic system is constantly active, but activity increases in response to stressful stimuli and decreases in response to parasympathetic activation. When the sympathetic is activated, adrenaline is released, heart rate increases, blood vessels constrict, sweating occurs, digestion is inhibited, and the pupils dilate.

 

This response is useful in the short term because it aides the body in responding quickly and effectively to stress. In the long term, however, the sympathetic response can become harmful. This is because the functions of sympathetic activation put additional stress on the nervous system. If the sympathetic system remains highly active, the parasympathetic response will not activate and return the body to homeostasis. This means the body does not get the chance to recover from stress. Chronic sympathetic activation can cause allostatic load.

 

-Some definitions courtesy of Stresseraser.com