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HPA what?

Pink brains on blue background cute pattern

You’ve probably heard some variation on this idea before:

Every thought you think is an instruction for your reality. What you think, you become.

Such esoteric wisdom used to reside with great minds like Goethe and Benjamin Franklin. And now with the enormous boom of the personal development industry and so-called “insta-therapy” in recent years, the concept has been regurgitated by many, gurus and common folk alike. 

Personally, I have a tendency to get a bit cynical when I notice these ideas circulating in such a pervasive manner. As such, my response is usually to go on a truth-seeking mission and try to get to the heart of things.

When it comes to this idea of our thoughts impacting our reality, modern science is helping to trim the fat and build our understanding of a rather complex matter.

The field of psychoendoneuroimmunology reveals how our psychology interacts with our physical body through the feedback it gives to the nervous and endocrine systems - the electrical and chemical messenger systems controlling the body.

In a paper titled ‘The revolutionary health science of psychoendoneuroimmunology: a new paradigm for understanding health and treating illness’, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science in 2004, the abstract reads:

‘This paper reviews the social and behavioral factors acting on the brain that influence health, illness, and death. Using data from several areas of research, a new paradigm is proposed for understanding health and illness. This paradigm, psychoendoneuroimmunology (PENI), provides both the concepts and the mechanisms for studying and explaining mind-body relationships. The brain is the body's first line of defense against illness, and the mind is the functioning of the brain. PENI incorporates ideas, belief systems, hopes, and desires as well as biochemistry, physiology, and anatomy. As we change our thoughts, we are changing our brain and thus our biology and our body. Belief systems set a baseline for the brain upon which other variables will act and have their effects.’ *

This is why when a new client comes to me with what seems like a rather specific matter, the first thing I do when we begin our work is zoom out and have a look at what is going on in their lives more broadly. Namely, how they’re sleeping, eating, moving and relating to life in general.

Usually, a combination of interventions from the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual prospectives is what leads to the most rapid and sticky positive results during our work together. We can get to the mind through the body and the body through the mind. But we do need to step back and make sure everything is considered from the perspective of the broader ecosystem that is you. We’re dealing with a system of systems. 

Fight-flight-freeze has become a mainstream idea. To go a little deeper on that, let’s do a quick and dirty on one of the key mechanisms studied within the paradigm of PENI: the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis).

When the hypothalamus perceives (key word) something in its environment which is considered a threat to the survival of the organism (i.e. us!), either physical, chemical or emotional, it will send a message to the pituitary gland to signal the production of stress hormones in the adrenal glands.

When stress hormones are released, the body’s key resources move away from immunity, digestion and reproduction and begin to mobilise the body to run or fight or freeze. Our first priority is to escape immediate danger. The HPA axis, comprising a complex cascade of biochemical processes, evolved in the context of helping us deal with real and immediate life or death threats effectively. Not surviving a constantly overflowing email inbox, for example. But without us intervening and using our prefrontal cortex, our more advanced logical rational mind, to discern between real threats and the chronic stresses of life in the twenty-first century, we can start to suffer the consequences of an HPA axis that is over-activated. 

Are your antennae twigging yet?

A big part of our work as humans is in learning how to deal constructively with the perception of pressure and urgency, so that we can respond to our environment appropriately and mitigate negative impacts on our biology that may stem from our psychology. Simple, not always easy. 

This field of science is what inspired me to expand my practice from working simply with the mind, as I did in my first years of business in clinical hypnotherapy, to incorporating also the body and the spirit. For some people, we must work first with the mind to heal the body. For others, we must work with the body to heal the mind. I like to look at all sides. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.

Humanity seems to be edging itself even deeper into a chronic state of fear-based thinking, which concerns me deeply. Many are unknowingly instructing their immune systems to down-regulate at a time we need them most. And even knowing what I know, I am not “immune” from this either. It’s daily work to keep ourselves on the path of wellness in a holistic sense. 

In light of this information, which may or may not be new to you, I invite you to explore how you can change your perception about the challenges you’re facing, as well getting really curious about the consequences of taking in external news about what is happening in the world. Your life may not depend on it, but your health might.

As you expand your awareness around these topics, stay compassionate. This is about building life-affirmative ways of operating into your daily routines and rituals, not about getting everything "right" all at once. 

I’ll keep sharing my best tips to help you along the way. Let’s keep learning together.

* Ray O. The revolutionary health science of psychoendoneuroimmunology: a new paradigm for understanding health and treating illness. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2004 Dec;1032:35-51. doi: 10.1196/annals.1314.004. PMID: 15677394.


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