How your brain is affected by stress

“Whatever may be the tensions and the stresses of a particular day, there is always lurking close at hand the trailing beauty of forgotten joy or unremembered peace.”  Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart

I like to understand the theory and the science behind how we think, act and how our brains work. One of the biggest changes I have made over the past two years has been to take up Mindfulness and practice this as often as possible. I have read a number of articles on the benefits of Mindfulness and one of the biggest benefits is helping to reduce stress.

So, let’s start with understanding what stress is?

Stress is caused by two things. Firstly, it is linked to whether you think situations around you are worthy of anxiety. And the second is to how your body reacts to your thought processes. This instinctive stress response to unexpected events is known as ‘fight or flight’.

“Fight or Flight” responses are the base animal like tendencies you see in nature. The zebra sees a lion in the bush. Their instinctive reaction is to flee. A gorilla sees another gorilla and his first reaction is to fight. We have exactly the same base responses to situations. These are hard-wired reactions to perceived threats to our survival.

Stress happens when we feel that we can’t cope with anxiety and this creates unmanaged pressure. We experience it almost any time we come across something unexpected or something that frustrates our goals. When the threat is small, our response is small and we often do not notice it among the many other distractions of a stressful situation. Many day-to-day situations can set it off – a change of home, a difficult boss at work, relationship issues, divorce, demanding children, traffic jams, being late for an event, etc. Almost anything can create a stressful situation.

The more often we are exposed to these types of stresses, the more overactive our fight or flight response becomes until we find ourselves operating at fever pitch level. Constantly prepared for battle, perceiving potential threats everywhere. That is why people who are over stressed not only show physiological symptoms such as high blood pressure, rapid heart rate or shallow fast breath; they can seem overly sensitive or aggressive. Today many of us don’t take enough physical exercise to ‘burn off’ the effects of our response and we’re left with stress build up. We learn to control our reactions, but this does not counteract the stress response.

With a stress response, the body influences the brain and the brain influences the body.

So if we experience a danger for the first time then that’s going to make us feel stressed and we will both remember the stressful situation, the trigger and we will remember the response. There have been numerous studies where people who are frightened of something; or who have experienced a stressful situation in the past; are exposed to the experience and their responses are measured. Even without the actual object being present, it is possible to elicit the response with just a picture or even the name of the object.

Think for a moment if you are frightened of something – a spider, a snake, swimming, anything. Now see how you feel when you imagine it. That is remembered stress response.

Since this is something you have “learned” through experience, it is also something you can learn to manage, deal with and hopefully reduce.

If you were to speed up your breathing on your own, you’d probably start to feel a bit more aroused and on edge. And, equally, if you calm the breathing down, you’re kind of forcing your body into a more relaxed state and you will then experience probably fewer negative thoughts as a result. When we’re stressed, our brains almost come up with negative thoughts to try and explain why we’re stressed. However, if you can just calm those thoughts and reactions down, then that’s going to have a beneficial effect on your levels of stress and mental state as well.

Your brain reflects the way that you think throughout your life. You shape it by your thoughts and your behaviors. If you play the piano for eight hours a day, then the parts of the brain responsible for helping you to play the piano will get larger. If you’re thinking stressful thoughts for the whole day then those parts of the brain are going to get larger and other parts of the brain will deteriorate. So the task is to change the way you think about situations and use techniques to help “quieten” down those stressful thoughts.

One program that was founded in the USA by Doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. Started in the mid-1970’s, over 40,000 people have completed the eight-week program and there are MBSR programs running in over 30 countries. As the name says, it is Mindfulness – Based – Stress – Reduction.

Like any medicine, or program, or event a physical activity, MBSR, takes time. It is not an instant wonder answer. That is why it takes at least eight weeks for the program to be completed and for you to notice the effects. For me, I noticed the changes after about week four. For others, it can be quicker of slower. However, you can see the benefits in both your own mind; how you deal with life’s situations and finally, the mind begins to quieten. Those rushing thoughts begin to slow down.

If you want to listen to a couple of really great podcasts on stress and the brain, I’d recommend the following:

Harvard Business School – Reduce Stress with Mindfulness

Mindful Magazine – What stress does to your brain?


I leave you with the following quote:

“The reason many people in our society are miserable, sick, and highly stressed is because of an unhealthy attachment to things they have no control over.”

Steve Maraboli, Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience

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