It’s all about mental health this month of May. I would like to have a quick chat about stress and the brain. I am going to share the 3 ways that stress affects your brain and what you do about it.
What is stress ?
Stress” is derived from the Latin word “strictus”, meaning “hardship, adversity, or affliction.” It can be physical, medical, psychological, or behavioral in nature. Stress is the inability to cope with a threat (real or imagined) to your well-being, which results in a series of responses and adaptations by your body. When we’re in danger, it’s the Fight, Flight or Freeze response that helps us to stay safe and get away from the stressor.
Stress is not necessarily “bad” as you can see! If you are in danger, your response to stress can literally save your life. Also, in the case of an environmental stress like a job you do not love, stress may be the thing that pushes you to make a positive change!
Chronic stress is more of a problem. As an example, let’s look at Job stress. Job stress is incredibly common among adults. According to a report entitled “Stress At Work” by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
40% of workers reported that their job was very often extremely stressful.
25% view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
75% of employees believe that they have more on-the-job stress than the generation before them.
26% of workers said they were, "often or very often burned out or stressed by their work.”
More than one-third of workers say their jobs are harming their physical or emotional health.
42% of workers say job pressures are interfering with family and personal relationships.
And the thing is, job stress isn’t even the ONLY stress people have! Add the stress of relationships, finances, health, the environment, etc and we are hard pressed to find anyone who is not impacted by stress.)
How does stress affect the body ?
Stress is implicated in insomnia and sleep issues, immune suppression, gastrointestinal and digestive issues, fertility challenges, mood imbalances, heart issues, and general aches and tension.
How does stress affect the brain ?
Stress triggers a chain reaction. When you experience a stressful event, the amygdala (an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing), sends a signal to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus then sends signals that communicate with the rest of the body through the nervous system so you have the energy to fight, get away or hide.
That is the signaling side of things. Basically, that is how your brain responded to a stressful event. Once stress has passed, the chemicals that your brain and body secrete in response to stress clear out and normalize and your body relaxes… normally. The problem is with chronic or repeated exposure to stress. What we’ll cover next are 3 effects that chronic stress has on the brain.
3 Effects chronic stress has on the brain
High levels of the stress hormone cortisol can change the brain’s ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can
disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others (becoming withdrawn, antisocial, introverted)
kill brain cells and even reduce the overall size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex. This impacts memory and learning.
increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress. “Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight”.
Basically, chronic stress or repeated exposure to stress can make you feel more stressed, withdrawn, and less focused on moving forward.
The brain, inflammation, and the immune function
The other thing we know about stress is that it triggers inflammation. Neuroinflammation is a growing field and it’s worth a basic understanding.
“Inflammation is a common denominator and likely risk factor for every manner of psychiatric disturbance, from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorder, from mania to depression—inflammation is transdiagnostic”
The brain and the immune system…are best understood as part of one larger system with causal influences that work in both directions”
It goes BOTH ways
Inflammation is capable of producing depression, anxiety, fatigue, anger, hostility and social withdrawal.
Brain states such as psychological stress that contribute to mental illness also produce inflammation.
Inflammation creates "sickness behaviour" i.e. when you just don't feel good !
Depression / anxiety
Loss of appetite
Increased sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia)
Inability to experience please (anhedonia)
The chronically stressed and inflamed brain creates neaurodegeneration:
Massive synapse loss (brain works less effectively)
Altered brain remodeling (changes response to daily behaviors)
Decreased hippocampal neurogenesis (recovery of cells/new cell formation)
Loss of cognitive function (makes you unable to think and focus clearly)
Increased risk for neurodegenerative disease (like Alzheimer’s)
WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
To reduce stress hormone (cortisol) and inflammation
Manage triggers (input)—personal and societal/environmental (the things that stress you out)
Modulate response (we’ll talk about this next)
Ways to modulate your stress response
Exercise and Sleep
Listen to or Create Music
View or Create Art
Being outside/”forest therapy”
There are many ways to modulate your stress response. What you choose to do depends on what makes you feel good and what you enjoy. The goal is not to do anything that adds or increases stress, so, for example, if you exercise, exercise at your fitness level. You don’t want to do a marathon if you don’t even jog. Similarly, if painting makes you stressed, but taking a bath is relaxing, then you take a bath!
The thing to know about stress management is that you get better results when you are proactive and when you have a regular stress-management practice. Just like building muscles takes time and effort, building your stress response and resiliency does too.)
When chronic stress is a part of your life, there are a million reasons to take action. Not only can you improve your physical health and well-being, but also your brain health and mental health.
It’s not too late to join the 3 month stress course this month which includes eating plans. Start your wellness journey today.
Yours in health and wellness.