We tend to think of stress as simply an emotion to be endured – not a physiological response which impacts brain and body. But researchers are finding more evidence all the time which gives insight into the way stress works – and we are learning what we can and can’t control as we confront the damage stress inflicts on our health.
Stress and the Brain
Most of us are familiar with the hormone cortisol which the brain releases in response to a threat. This “fight or flight” reflex, as it has been nicknamed, is beneficial during an emergency, but high levels of cortisol over long periods of time damage the brain.
- Chronic stress over-stimulates the amygdala – the part of the brain that manages our response to fear and stress – which decreases our ability to effectively handle stress.
- Cortisol deteriorates signals in the hippocampus, which decreases our ability to learn, remember, and even control stress. It also reduces the hippocampus’ ability to make new brain cells, causing depression and further reducing our ability to learn and remember.
- Cortisol reduces the size of the prefrontal cortex (responsible for concentration, decision-making, judgement, and social interaction).
Stress and the Body
Cortisol also suppresses the effectiveness of our immune system by lowering the number of lymphocytes (cells which attack bacteria, viruses, and toxins) in our white blood cells, linking stress to frequent illness.
When cortisol and epinephrine (another stress hormone, also known as adrenaline) are released, the liver steps up for the fight with more glucose – to give us the extra energy we need. Most people are able to reabsorb all that blood sugar, but some develop Type 2 diabetes.
Cortisol defers bodily functions not necessary for the immediate battle. Digestion, for example, is slowed, with a rebound of activity following stress. These reactions, along with a dose of adrenaline, cause all kinds of trouble for the digestive system, including heartburn, acid reflux, nausea, intestinal pain, and diarrhea/constipation.
Adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol instruct the heart to pump harder and faster and cause blood vessels to dilate to quickly deliver oxygen to the muscles. But our circulatory system does not appreciate these repeated responses. We can find ourselves at increased risk for hypertension, heart attack, stroke, or general inflammation.
Muscle tension is another reflex reaction to stress – helping us guard against injury and pain. But continuously tense muscles can lead to all types of painful conditions from simple headaches to migraine, fibromyalgia, and TMJ.
But we all experience stress. What causes “chronic stress”?
Chronic stress can be caused by continual exposure to stressful experiences. For instance, researchers have found city dwellers are at a higher risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia than country dwellers, and that the amygdala (the brain’s fear center) is much more active in the city dwellers. Are noise, pollution, and many people in a confined space to blame?
Other types of long-term stressful situations could be angry and unhealthy relationships at home or at work, constant deadlines and pressures at a job, or chronic illness. People with phobias can also experience chronic stress if constantly confronted with the object of fear.
And people who have experienced a severe trauma sometimes get “stuck” in a state of heightened stress. This is often the result of a (usually unconscious) attempt to prevent the trauma from re-occurring, similar to a phobia.
Unfortunately, as cortisol damages our brains and reduces our ability to handle stress, the cycle of stress and mental and physical damage can seem like a trap. But, it turns out we are not just helpless victims of our nervous system!
What can we do?
One of the best and simplest ways to take back control of our mind and body is breathing exercise. Studies show that simply taking ten deep breaths (breath in through the nose, out through the mouth) four times per day drastically reduces the amount of damaging cortisol in our bodies.
Many apps are readily available to guide people in breathing and relaxation exercises. A very simple one I like is Headspace.
We can also reverse the damage to our brains by generating new brain cells. Remember the hippocampus we mentioned earlier? This is the area of our brain which produces new neurons (about 700 per day). Neuron production (neurogenesis) benefits from learning, sleep, exercise, and sex. Nutrients and diet which aid in neuron production are vitamins A, B, and E, resveratrol, omega 3 fatty acids, folic acid, zinc, flavonoid, caffeine, and intermittent fasting. Saturated fats, sugar, alcohol, and soft diets decrease neurogenesis.
Sometimes we may choose to leave a stressful situation, but when that is not possible, developing a healthy response to stress is critical. Victims of trauma may need individual assistance with this, but it is important to understand – we can’t control our body’s reaction to stress. What we can control is our own thoughts. It’s not easy and, as I said, trauma victims will probably need a trained therapist, but chronic stress doesn’t have to be a permanent condition.
Developing a healthy response to stress would involve identification of stress “triggers” and the unhelpful thoughts which allow those situations to be viewed as a threat. Sometimes simply challenging those thoughts will start the process of disconnecting the stress response. Most often new thoughts and beliefs about the stress event need to replace the old.
Following “thought replacement” (or along with it), would be healthy habit replacement. For example, the next time my boss yells at me I will not stop at In-N-Out on the way home and binge-watch Parks and Rec. Instead, I will go for a walk and/or call a friend.
If our stress involves the behaviors and expectations of others, appropriate boundaries may be required. We can’t change or control others, but we can change our own thoughts and choices which allow others to inflict stress.
And we need regular times of refreshment – enjoyable activities and connection with others. People who live in community and feel supported have lower stress levels than people in isolation. While long-term stress is draining, rest and enjoyable activities can fill us back up.
Stress is a huge silent destroyer in our society, causing damage to our brains and our bodies. Stress can feel like a trap, but the tools for escape are out there.