“Did you know that stress shrinks your brain? This is no joke,” says Tom Meyers, an Osteopath and Stress Coach who works with patients suffering from work-related stress. TEDxBrussels interviews Meyers to understand how to cope with our high-pressure world and the unnecessary stress we experience multiple times per day.
1/ Why has stress become such a problem for our health, relationships and economy?
First, lets look at what stress is. Stress is an autonomic biological survival response resulting from a near-instantaneous sequence of neurological, hormonal and physical changes to protect the body from danger.
The changes involved in a stress response, often referred to as the ‘fight and flight response’, are various. They might cause an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and the hormones adrenalin and cortisol. At the same time the immune response is inhibited, digestion slowed down, libido suppressed, and heart rate variability decreases.
Unfortunately this response hasn’t had an update since prehistoric times. The stress response was a great bio-defense mechanism for when we were facing physical threats. However, it is not so apt to the psychosocial challenges that our society faces today - excessive workloads, deadlines, poor management, information overload and so on. Our biology hasn’t been able to update itself to face the new environmental stressors and here lies our first challenge.
The second challenge is that these new stressors are more chronic in nature. The kind and duration of stressors we face have changed but not the stress response itself. The consequence is that the body finds itself having less and less time to relax, recuperate and regenerate. In the RRR-mode our immune response is boosted, digestion and libido is turned up, and heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension are reduced, and hormone levels rebalanced and heart rate variability increases.
Did you know that stress shrinks your brain? This is no joke. Increased levels of cortisol changes the vascular flow and glucose distribution in certain parts of your brain like the hippocampus which is related to memory, and the prefrontal cortex which is implicated with consciousness, personality, decision making and social behaviour. No wonder there is an increase in depression and burnout.
A third challenge is that it seems that we’ve forgotten that we’re humans. Being human comes with a body and that body has different needs than our mind. We’re mind-driven and never think if our body can handle the objectives set by our mind. I call this the “copy-pasting” phenomenon. For example some people are always active and go as far as feeling a sort of guilt when they‘re not doing something. Yet the body’s biological design is one where action needs to makes way for relaxation in order to recuperate and regenerate. On top of that when we do take time to relax we tend to make the wrong choices. The example that I give in presentations is of someone saying “I’m going to relax this evening and watch a horror movie”... What!?
We are living in a culture where health promoting behaviour has become - unbelievable but true - inappropriate. An example: no one questions a smoker taking a cigarette break but when a non-smoker takes a break for some fresh air he or she feels often guilty, stigmatised. Do you recognize this?
To sum this up in one simple phrase: we’re facing a conflict between biology and culture and it makes us sick, costing society billions and more it is killing us.
But now comes the question, is biology to blame?
2/How do you help people around the world to reduce the pain of stress?
My health practice, presentations and workshops are based on three pillars: To help you - to help you help yourself - to help you, help yourself and others.
As an Osteopath and Stress Coach for Body & Mind I help people by allowing the body to “reset” and return to ease. My patients initially came to me to treat physical aliments, gradually experiencing great improvements in terms of how they dealt with stress, clarity of mind and decision making. Overall they felt lighter, as if a weight had been lifted from their body and mind. Now 10 years and 2 clinical trials later I’ve been able to demonstrate that the approach I have developed has indeed an effect on both body and mind. It results in a reduction of perceived musculoskeletal pain, anxiety, stress and an increase in heart rate variability.
Research, combined to personal experience, has given me plenty of insights. With the rise of the information age we’ve become disconnected and less socially conscious. We have forgotten that we are simultaneously a whole and a part of a larger society. It is time to go back to the future, retrace our steps and come to terms again with what it means to be human. With such understanding we can lay new foundations to grow and thrive instead of merely survive. And believe me when I say that thriving is easier than you think if you don’t let yourself stand in the way.
3/ Why is managing stress important in the context of the Deeper Future?
Our society will face extra challenges ranging from global warming to terrorism; as a result, stressors will increase whether we like it or not.
We are already suffering. To put that suffering in figures: here in Belgium alone 1.1 million or 10% of the population takes antidepressants, 13.5 million boxes of sleeping pills are sold a year, 1 in 4 employees and 1 in 5 doctors are at risk of burn-out and the cost of sick workers exceeds that of the cost of unemployment.
If we don’t start to do something today, individuals will become more self-centred, anxious, depressed, burned-out, tense - and less creative, less intelligent, less social, less tolerant. The risk is that over time we will wipe ourselves out.
To thrive again in the face of change a good start is understanding and managing stress. This improvement is accessible to all and has been proven to yield good results in a very short spam of time. One step at a time, we can make the changes needed to transform the world. Every individual must become a change agent instead of getting stuck in the ‘Que Sera, Sera’ mindset . A deeper, more meaningful and mindful future is in our hands. It is a choice that must be translated into action.
4/ What is your vision of the Deeper Future?
Despite the challenges we are going to face, I'm still very optimistic about the future. However, more and more people are asking questions, driven by the feeling that we can’t go on living like this. As a response, we are witnessing an increase in co-creation living and work spaces, complimentary therapies as well as documentaries shedding light on the obscure hunting our world.
I experience this every day in my work as a health practitioner and public speaker. People are seeking to live a more meaningful life and are realising that health is essential to realizing their dreams. More and more people are willing to spend time and money to re-take health in their own hands. We are calibrating our minds, getting ready for a higher level of being where less is more. The Deeper Future is... bright! However, how bright it will be depends on our health and how “light” we’ll become.