The Serious Effects of Tilt and Stress in the Body

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For the overwhelming majority tilt, the reactionary struggle with coming to terms with poker results, is something that is only explored at a surface level. Some of us read about it in book ‘X’ and then form a belief that we now have a good handle on it. But in actuality is this the case?

Breaking the ignorance surrounding tilt is imperative. And in the following, we explore the effects of tilt in the body.

A mind-body connection is not a concept or an idea.

It is clearly observable if you bring your attention to the body.

In this article we look at the detailed physiological effects tilt (stress) has on the body. 

[Informational Source: MBCT Teacher Development – Part 1, The British Mindfulness Institute]

A quick note on the structure of the brain

The Hypothalamus links the nervous system to the endocrine system via the Pituitary gland. It is roughly the size of an almond. It has the important job of controlling body temperature, hunger, thirst and circadian cycles.

The Pituitary gland is an endocrine gland about the size of a pea that sits in a small cavity at the base of the brain. It secretes hormones regulating homeostasis, including trophic hormones that stimulate other endocrine glands. Its functionality is linked to the Hypothalamus.

The Amygdalae are almond-shaped groups of neurons located deep within the medial temporal lobes. Research has shown that they perform a primary role in the processing and memory of emotional reactions. 

The Physiological Response of Tilt and Stress

Tilt manifests itself in the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) with differing effects in several parts of the brain. Something that is vital not to ignore is that:

Chronic stress, hyperactivation of the SNS, leads to neuropsychological abnormalities and has been shown to be a physiological path of major depression. 

Let’s look at this in more detail…

When the tilt response is occurring internally, a part of the brain called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) system is activated.

This triggers a release of steroid hormones (Glucocorticoids) and the primary stress hormone, cortisol.

The HPA system also releases certain neurotransmitters, chemical messengers, known as catecholamines:

  • Dopamine;
  • Norepinephrine;
  • Epinephrine (Adrenaline).

These chemical messengers activate a part of the brain called the Amygdala, which appears to trigger an emotional response to a stressful event.

During the tilt response, catecholamines also suppress activity at the front of the brain concerned with short-term memory, concentration, inhibition (self-control) and rational thought. This means it interferes with the ability to handle difficult social situations or intellectual tasks (making decisions in poker for example).

Further, neurotransmitters signal the Hippocampus (a nearby area of the brain) to store the emotionally loaded experience in long-term memory. This is a survival response. In primitive times this would be critical for avoiding threats in the future. However, in poker this often results in a stored-up fear that holds a person back from realising their full potential:

  • Avoiding playing;
  • Quitting playing at irrational times.

The heart, lungs and circulation are all affected by acute stress. When making a big bluff or a big decision has to be made, for example in a big live tournament or in a large cash game pot, heart rate and blood pressure increase almost instantly. Breathing becomes rapid and the lungs take in more oxygen. The spleen discharges red and white blood cells, allowing the blood to transport more oxygen in the body. Blood flow may increase 300-400%!

One interesting response is in the throat and mouth, which you may be aware of. During a big decision or when running a big bluff fluids are directed away from nonessential locations. For instance, the mouth. This causes dryness and difficulty in talking. Also, stress can cause spasms in the throat muscles, making it difficult to swallow.   

The stress effect also moves blood flow away from the skin to support the heart and muscle tissues. The physical effect is a cool, clammy, sweaty skin. The scalp also tightens so that the hair feels like it is standing up.

Does this seem familiar when running a big bluff playing live?

The Long-Term Effects of Stress

If the stress and tilt response becomes an ongoing arousal, there are many sicknesses associated:

  • Fatigue;
  • Lack of energy and motivation;
  • Sleep disorder (early or frequent waking);
  • Appetite disruption;
  • Serotonin (commonly known as the ‘happiness’ hormone) depletion;
  • Immune suppression – frequent illness/infections;
  • Thyroid/endocrine burnout;
  • Obesity/Diabetes;
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Infertility
  • Plus more!

Cortisol is a toxic substance if in the system long-term as it:

  • Impairs brain regions;
  • Over-activates the Amygdala (associated to fear/negativity) and Adrenals (burn-out and weight gain);
  • Decreases neural branching and building of neurons (stuck in old fearful thinking);
  • Causes gradual decline of the Hippocampus; impairing hippocampal memory (spatial navigation, autobiographical memory, no memory or impaired memory);
  • Impairment of Cingulate (inability to concentrate) and Prefrontal Cortex (executive function and decision making).

Main Takeaway

Chronic stress strengthens negative networks and weakens positive ones. It also prevents the creation of new neural connections!

Breaking out of the tilt and stress response. Breaking away from it altogether.

When you start to look at tilt and stress both deeply and broadly (as we have done in The Losing Stress Podcast) you see that they are related to the ‘self’.

Image for The Losing Stress Podcast

Scientists have looked at “selfing” mental activities and found that they relate to activity in an area of the brain known as the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC).

What’s interesting to note is that:

Long-term meditators (those with greater than 10,000 hours of practice) who reported an “undistracted awareness” and an “effortless doing” had decreased activation in the PCC. Whereas when they reported “efforting” and “discontentment” activity in the PCC increased. 1

But it’s important not to draw the wrong conclusions from this kind of evidence.

Whilst exploring meditation through science can provide some well-backed up evidence it is important to note the limited nature of studies. As they test timed practice against one particular hypothesis.

When you look into meditation as a topic more deeply it leads to questions like:

Can meditation be fully measured in time? Is 10,000 hours necessary or any time, in fact, necessary to break out of the ‘self’?

This is what is explored in The Losing Stress Podcast: the application of meditation in the real living life of a poker player.

Final Words

What is vital to note here is that in this article we have looked at the effects of tilt at an intellectual level. And an intellectual understanding cannot, unfortunately, provide a complete understanding. Learning about the tilt response doesn’t necessarily dissolve the issues at play when the response arises. However, the information provided is valuable knowledge and can hopefully provide motivation for change.

1 The Science of Meditation – How to Change Your Brain, Mind and Body, Daniel Goleman & Richard J. Davidson