Let’s talk today about the physiological impacts of Stress! I’m going to get a little bit long-winded and “nerdy” in this post with some scientific info, but I really believe it will lay a great foundation for beginning to live stress-free.
Stress is affecting your brain much more than you think. Sure, you’ve experienced the distraction, forgetfulness, negativity or anxiety that comes from stressful situations, but did you know it’s also shrinking your brain? Hormones released in response to stress not only affect brain function but they also change the physical structure of your brain.
In response to stress, free-radical production is increased dramatically; at the same time our adrenal glands secrete cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones. This then effects hormones such as DHEA, growth hormone, and insulin. This affects the body’s ability to repair cells, tissues and organs, dampens the immune system function and depletes organ reserve making us more susceptible to age related illnesses.
The stress hormone cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in a portion of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over. These are all much-needed processes in both our professional and personal lives. Stress affects our concentration, decision making and judgment abilities, social interactions and takes control of impulsive behavior. It changes the physical structure of your brain and can even affect your DNA!
Chronic stress can also shrink the medial prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory, and control of impulsive behavior. Stress also has the ability to affect stem cells, inhibiting access to the prefrontal cortex, where we plan complex cognitive behavior and moderate social interaction. The result is a brain that is less capable of learning and memory, and more prone to anxiety and depression.
To make matters worse, these same stress hormones can increase the size and activity of a portion of the brain called the amygdala. (3) The amygdala is critical in the formation and storage of memories associated with highly emotional events. It pairs an event with a feeling, and this connection is stored away in our long-term memory so we can either avoid the event or seek it out in the future. The amygdala is considered the fear center of your brain. As levels of cortisol rise, it weakens your ability to control stress. This affects your ability to learn and remember things and sets the stage for depression and eventually Alzheimer’s disease. The change in cortisol levels increase negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.
These brain alterations can have significant consequences on the way we interact with others, our ability to learn, remember, make decisions and accomplish long-term goals. They also make it more difficult to successfully manage stressful situations in the future, leading to a vicious cycle.
GOOD NEWS! Cortisol levels can be balanced by exercise, meditation and several other strategies.
Homework: For the next 2 days, keep a brief journal of every time you experience stress, anxiety, anger, fear, jealousy or any negative emotions throughout the day. Make sure to include what behavior follows the emotion i.e. eating, crying, shopping, exercise, self-medicating. I want you to experiment with a new coping mechanism. Our emotions are God given and valid. We need to give them a voice instead of stuffing them down. When you experience the emotion: take 2 minutes, alone, to identify the emotion and the triggering event. Then give yourself permission to feel and validate it. If it involved a difficult conversation with someone, remind yourself that we don’t have control over others. Take responsibility for the part you played in the event and see how you could have responded differently. Maybe your reaction is a trigger from a past unresolved traumatic incident.
If the emotion you were experiencing was anxiety or fear, take a moment to explore the root cause. If it is because of things like insecurity or fear of what people may say or do then invest some time to explore healing in those areas with a coach, mentor, pastor, friend etc. People often don’t take the time to analyze the root of these emotions because they are painful or simply too busy. This results in suppressing these feelings which get stored in your body and are directly correlated to sickness and disease.
If the emotion brings about an irresistible food craving, stop, drink a glass of water, take deep breaths, calm down and allow your level headedness to come back. Then from a place of rest, explore the triggering emotion.
Every time we recognize these patterns, it creates patterns and memories on how the emotion becomes less powerful as we take authority over the emotional state opposed to the emotional state overpowering us.
Over time it will become easier and dominate the stress response. If you notice that fear is a driving force in your life, confront it! Running straight at your fears can deactivate the paralyzing effects and help you to overcome the very thing that was holding you back.
Running at the problem sounds a bit scary, but it’s amazing how well it works.