Stress peeks through the skin - Part 1

When we actively feel something, it is truly engaging our whole physiology not just our imagination.  Science tells us that every single cell in our body is influenced by our feelings through our nervous system and the flow of our “molecules of emotion”.  It's perhaps no suprise then that what happens at the skin - where we feel stuff - can provide a powerful key to achieving a relaxed state which can help banish harmful stress.  In this two part article we look at stress and how something called Electrodermal Activity can give us great leverage for relaxation biofeedback to banish this stress.

Molecules of emotion

Candice Pert came up with this term to describe the hormones within our body that act as a chemical nervous system having the power to make us well or make us ill.  Hundreds of hormones flow because of our emotions and we manifest the consequence of those feelings. 

Sad feelings actually produce sad bodies.  Depressed feelings produce depressed and ageing bodies and happy feelings produce healthier and youthful bodies.  

This is important because it implies in simple terms what science confirms.  Our feelings and emotions are actually a factor in the development of cancers, heart attacks, strokes and many other damaging events.  When people talk about the undesirable aspects of stress this is, in essence, what they are talking about.

However, we can also see that stress need not be bad.  You see it’s not hard work that gives us damaging stress; its how we personally choose to interpret the situation.  If we can choose to interpret the same situations in positive ways and take on positive thoughts then our molecules of emotion will produce a happy, healthy and successful body. 

Why feelings are key

Feelings matter

Feelings matter

We can’t fool our body about this because our feelings actually precede our thoughts.  Deepak Chopra writes of one of his patients, ill with cancer and yet always upbeat, positive and seemingly happy every time she came to see him.  Puzzled at this feat of apparent positive thinking, he asked her how she managed to be so upbeat.  This patient burst into tears and confessed that actually she was deeply afraid.  She believed that “positive thinking” would help her but in fact, she was afraid to ever have a negative thought.  Her positivism was in fact a mask because being afraid of a negative thought was simply – a negative thought.  Her deep feelings of fear were present and damaging despite her outward attempts at positive thinking. 

There is a broader lesson here.  Many gurus of positive thinking recommend affirmations that you can use to say to yourself repeatedly to impress beneficial changes on the subconscious mind.  Do you remember the old affirmation, “I must, I must, improve my bust?”  Whilst these affirmations can be helpful, it is important to realise that chanting a phrase to yourself repeatedly without also activating the correct feelings, emotions and intentions is at best a waste of time and likely to be a new source of worry for your relatives and friends who are probably already doubting your sanity!

Stress and the ANS

We have written before about the two aspects of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) that govern our short term response (fight or flight) to stress events.  The Sympathetic pathway (SNS) is what powers us up to "fight or flight" and the so called Parasympathetic pathway (PNS) acts to slow everything down again.  A balance between these two branches of the ANS is vital for overall health.  We don't want to be stuck in a situation where our life is governed by the negative molecules of emotion that arise when we are frequently out of balance.

The Pip - takes advantage of EDA

Heart Rate Variability (HRV)

Hear Rate Variability has long been used in biofeedback to influence ANS balance.  HRV is a measurement of the beat to beat changes in heart rate.  The heart can change speeds by up to 20 or 30 beats per minute in a span of just 2 or 3 heart beats.  Despite what many people think it is constantly changing in speed depending on what we are thinking of feeling

HRV is dependent on both the SNS and the PNS.  Certain frequencies in the HRV correlate with SNS activity and others with PNS activity. However, the HRV signal is not always unambiguous. That's not to say that HRV is not interesting in relation to the stress response, but the jury is definitely out on whether it is an ideal way of looking at stress.

Electrodermal activity and stress

If HRV is interesting and widely used in biofeedback, why would we use anything else? Anyway - what else could we use?

The answer is - Electrodermal Activity (EDA).  Once upon a time referred to as Galvanic Skin Response, modern instrumentation design has eliminated some of the technical challenges of monitoring this property.  EDA has been a phenomenon known about since the 1800's and has a long history of use in psychophysiological research.  Basically when the SNS is powered up by a stressful event, sweat glands in our skin are innervated too. This causes a variation in the electricalconductance of the skin. 

As we will read in Part II of this article, a clever new device called the PIP takes advantage of this property and uses biofeedback to literally put us in closer touch with our feelings to banish stress.