How Shaping Behavior Can Help You Fight Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH

A young child shaping behaviorToday, stress is ever-present. It is prevalent among society and it can readily affect how people interact with each other. When allowed to persist, stress can also be particularly harmful to one’s health as it can readily trigger adrenal fatigue. And while stress cannot be avoided, it can be managed so that it doesn’t affect your health drastically. The way to do this is through a commitment to shaping behavior.

What is Shaping Behavior?

Shaping behavior refers to the practice of establishing a certain behavior that is not typically performed by someone at present. Hence, this also involves reinforcing behaviors which are closer to the behavior one is aiming to achieve. In doing so, the target behavior can be learned more easily. This is particularly helpful especially if you are looking to change your own behavior for the better.

Shaping Behavior and Stress

Generally, when a person encounters stress, certain behaviors tend to manifest. Unfortunately, these are often bad behaviors and they include anxiety as well as aggressiveness. Both of which tend to be more negative emotions, thereby causing one’s stress level to go up even higher.

Typically, the body responds to stress by utilizing its NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response system. The NEM stress response system is composed of six circuits full of organs and systems which work to address stress in such a way that a person can deliver a ‘fight or flight’ response.

Among these circuits is the neuroaffect circuit. It is made up of the central nervous system (CNS), autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the gastrointestinal (GI) system. All these systems utilize neurotransmitters to balance moods, emotions, and the body itself. Hence, neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, and acetylcholine play a key role in the neuroaffect circuit of the NEM stress response system.

An image of how neurotransmitters help with shaping behaviorSome of these neurotransmitters are inhibitory and they are mainly involved in boosting self-esteem and making you feel good. In contrast, other neurotransmitters are excitatory, and they are involved in keeping people motivated, focused, and alert.

The inhibitory neurotransmitter serotonin is responsible for controlling appetite, sleep, learning ability, sexual desire, and mood. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is both inhibitory and excitatory. It is responsible for feelings of drive, motivation, and pleasure. Norepinephrine is responsible for regulating both arousal and attention. Hence, it helps put the body on mental alert. Meanwhile, adrenaline is a neurotransmitter that also plays an important role in the fight or flight reaction to stress. Finally, the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is involved in digestion, bowel movements, urination, and more.

To allow the body to respond to stress in a healthy manner, a proper balance of all the neurotransmitters must be maintained. However, neurotransmitters become dysregulated when the body experiences chronic stress.

As part of the NEM stress response system, the adrenal glands produce several stress hormones. Among these is cortisol which is also known as the body’s primary stress hormone. So long as the stress continues, the adrenals would keep producing as much cortisol as needed. However, when stress becomes prolonged or chronic, there will come a time that the adrenal glands are no longer able to produce enough cortisol for the body. Similarly, it will also be unable to produce enough of the other hormones that the body needs to continue its function.

As a result, the NEM stress response system begins to be compromised. At the same time, the body would also experience significant hormonal imbalance. This, in turn, would trigger Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS). When this happens, one may end up suffering some harmful symptoms of AFS. These include heart palpitations, low blood pressure, low thyroid function, unexplained hair fall, foggy thinking, lethargy, chemical sensitivities, electromagnetic force sensitivity, abdominal fat accumulation, loss of muscle mass, muscle pain, recurrent mouth sores, dizziness, gastritis, irritable bowel syndrome, and more. Meanwhile, because of AFS, it is also likely for someone to suffer from conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome, fibrocystic breast disease, endometriosis, Grave’s disease, chronic tinnitus, Lyme disease, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

The only way to avoid experiencing adrenal fatigue is to stop stress from escalating and prolonging the moment it occurs. Unfortunately, suffering from a neurotransmitter imbalance can make this a challenge. As stress continues, cortisol decreases your levels of amino acid tryptophan, which is necessary for serotonin production. As a result, the body suffers from reduced serotonin. This leads to worsening depression, affecting one’s ability to cope with stress unless they take a more proactive approach. One of the ways to do this is by shaping your behavior in such a way that you can cope with stress by using positive behaviors and emotions.

Behavior, Emotions and How it Affects Stress Levels

shaping behavior with the affects of stressWhen a person encounters stress, certain behaviors and emotions have a tendency to manifest. Unfortunately, these tend to be in the form of depression, panic attacks, foggy thinking, irritability under stress, and anxiety, all of which are also symptoms of adrenal fatigue.

The problem with behaviors like these is that they encourage one’s stress levels to go up. This, in turn, forces the NEM stress response to keep functioning. Because of this, the adrenal glands also end up producing more cortisol.

One study conducted by researchers at the Centre of Research in Human Development and Concordia University found a crucial link between behavior problems and one’s cortisol levels. Upon studying youngsters with behavior problems, it was discovered that cortisol levels tend to be abnormally high around the time that the behavior problems start to manifest.

On the other hand, cortisol levels become abnormally low the moment behavioral problems have been present for a significantly long time. Such low levels might be explained by the adrenal glands becoming unable to meet cortisol demands the moment adrenal fatigue sets in.

Shaping Behavior Tips to Cope with Stress Better

Now that you know how your behavior and attitude can affect the way you cope with stress, it’s time to find out how to utilize shaping behavior to cope better. This way, you can combat stress with good attitudes such as optimism, determination, and positivity.

Meanwhile, if you cannot effectively practice shaping your behavior on your own, you can seek guidance from a psychologist or even a life coach. This way, they can guide you better on how to handle stress in a much healthier emotional manner.

That said, here are some shaping behavior tips that you can consider to help reduce the impact of stress in your day-to-day life:

View setbacks as an opportunity to improve on your skills

Whether it concerns career, finances, or relationships, setbacks are always devastating. However, instead of dwelling on the setback and allowing negative feelings and behavior to set in, it is better to see the situation as an opportunity to improve on your skills.

Brush off the negative emotions and focus on finding out what you could have done differently. Commit to improving your skillset and move towards success in the near future.

Don’t take yourself too seriously

While there are certain matters that you should always take seriously, it doesn’t mean that you should not give yourself some time to breathe. Have a laugh once in a while. After all, humor can be quite effective in lowering your stress levels. In fact, a study conducted by the American Physiological Society has found that anticipating humor alone can help reduce stress hormones. Another study conducted by the City University of Hong Kong also found that humor can reduce cortisol awakening response among healthy older men.

Seek out people with a positive attitude

A group of positive people shaping behaviorYou may not realize it, but your social interactions can also influence your own attitude and behavior. This is why you need to seek out people who promote positivity and optimism to bring down your stress levels. In fact, a study found that participants with greater optimism have significantly less secretion of cortisol.

At the same time, having the right social support can also go a long way in bringing your stress levels down. On the other hand, a lack of social support may cause your stress levels to go up continuously. In fact, a study in Canada found that pregnant women who did not receive adequate social support tended to have higher cortisol levels.

Feel free to apply any of these tips on your own life anytime. Remember, your attitude and behavior significantly influence your feelings towards any situation in life. Hence, it would also affect your body’s ability to cope with stress. By shaping your behavior, it is possible to stop stress from taking over your life. Instead, you learn to handle it better and you also become a lot happier in the process.

© Copyright 2013 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam’s Key Question

Shaping behavior involves developing new behavior by also adopting certain reinforcing behaviors. Through this method, one can be encouraged to respond to stress better. For instance, instead of exhibiting pessimism, anxiety, and aggressiveness, one can shape his or her behavior to respond with positivity and optimism instead.

Shaping behavior