How stress affects your brain?

“If the problem can be solved why worry? If the problem cannot be solved worrying will do you no good.” ― Śāntideva

In my previous post, I shared with you some of the physical effects that stress can cause to your body. The most common causes of stress include work, money matters and relationships with partners, children or other family members. Stress may be caused either by major upheavals and life events such as divorce, unemployment, moving house and bereavement,

What are stress hormones?

Chronic stress increases stress hormones and these affect many brain functions, putting you at risk for mood disorders and other mental issues. When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brain’s core functions and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.

There are two types of stress hormone, one called adrenaline and the other called cortisol.

Adrenaline (epinephrine and norepinephrine) are stress hormones produced on an as needed basis in moments of extreme excitement. They help you think and move fast in an emergency. They are the body rocket boosters to help you move quickly. Adrenaline does not linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and that’s what makes it so dangerous. It can leaving you feeling exhausted and wired but tired in the short term. In the medium term it can lead to weight gain, mood swings, poor sleep, short attention span, and memory issues.

Long term excessive cortisol leads to a host of health problems including: diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, and even heart disease.

How does stress affect the brain?

While stress and cortisol take a toll on your body, they take an equally high toll on your brain.
Stress can affect your thoughts and feelings. In fact, it can change the very brain itself, its wiring and structure.

Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory problems, anxiety, and worry. But most of these effects of stress on your brain are “behind the scenes.” You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects … eventually.

Here are a number of ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being along with simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.

  • Stress creates excess cortisol which in turn creates a surplus of glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals that kill brain cells.
  • Chronic stress makes you forgetful and emotional. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.
  • Stress builds up an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s fear center. Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain. This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.
  • The cortisol hormone blocks the production of a protein that is used to create new brain cells.
  • Stress depletes critical brain chemicals, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.
  • Stress predisposes you to developing a variety of mental illnesses including anxiety and panic disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction and alcoholism.
  • Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times — exams, job interviews, and major life events. Stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions.
  • Stress can measurably shrink your brain. Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.
  • On Top of All This … Chronic stress destroys your happiness and peace of mind. It wears you down mentally and emotionally and saps the joy from life.

How do you begin to deal with Stress?

The first and most important point is recognizing that you are suffering from stress. With so many physical and emotional symptoms, you can be confused as to what is actually going on. For me, I came to recognize it was stress through the changes in the way I was dealing with situations. I was feeling far more emotional than normal.  It seems counter-intuitive, but trying some of the stress relaxing techniques helps you to understand you were suffering from stress.

Exercise: You can try physical exercise, such as running, walking or swimming. I love to get out and go for a walk. I can’t swim for toffee and my running days are long gone after I broke my ankle a few years ago.

Connect to others: The simple act of talking face to face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress. Being helpful and friendly to others also helps to reduce stress as well as providing great opportunities to expand your social network. I go to a monthly Mindfulness sitting group and also go to retreats, combining mindfulness practices with being with other like minded people.

Mindfulness: Set aside time to practice Mindfulness. A little and often is far better. Check out some of my blog posts on Mindfulness practices. Mindfulness actually helps you to train your brain.

I leave you with the following quote.

“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Frank Herbert, Dune

What is stress and how do you can deal with it?

“Things get bad for all of us, almost continually, and what we do under the constant stress reveals who/what we are.” ― Charles Bukowski, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire

We all experience stress. For some, it is mild, transient and they can generally shrug off the impact. For some, it is extreme, long lasting and can have a devastating impact.

What few of us realize is the impact on ourselves, both physically and also mentally. You might not realise the nagging headache you get in the morning; your frequent inability to get to sleep at night and the constant tossing and turning as you get to sleep; being snappy or short with your family or partner, or even your decreased ability to focus and lack of productivity at work are all signs you may be suffering from stress.

Stress related statistics:

  • Forty-three percent of all adults suffer adverse health effects from stress.
  • Seventy-five percent to 90% of all doctor’s office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints.
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) declared stress a hazard of the workplace.
  • Stress costs UK industry more than $3.7 billion annually in lost productivity and sick time.
  • 50% of people will have a recurrence of stress during their working lives.

What are some of the effects of stress?
Stress symptoms can affect your physical body, your thoughts and feelings, and your behavior. Being able to recognize common stress symptoms can give you a jump on managing them.

  • Physical effects include: Headaches; muscle tension or pain in your neck or back, but can be anywhere in your body; chest pains (if you get these, please seek medical attention urgently); fatigue and lethargy; a change in sex drive; stomach upsets and sleep problems.
  • Common effects of stress on your behavior include: Overeating or undereating; angry outbursts; drugs, substance or alcohol abuse; social withdrawal; or even exercising less often or more often

  • Mood effects include:– Anxiety; restlessness; lack of motivation or focus; feelings of being overwhelmed, out of control and lost; Irritability and anger; finally, sadness and finally, depression.

HELPFUL TIPS: How do you begin to deal with Stress?

There are many different ways to deal with milder levels of stress.Try to eat regularly and eat sensible food. I have taken to eating slow release porridge in the morning. It gives me energy and I don’t snack. In addition, I try to eat regular meals for lunch and also for tea. Reduce your caffeine and coffee intake to 2 cups a day. Or even drink alternatives. I drink peppermint tea. Yes, I have a cup of tea first thing in the day and one cup of coffee during the morning, but I do not have the ten or twenty cups I used to have. Avoid cola drinks as they contain caffeine and stimulants. I drink fizzy water instead.Take regular exercise, to help the body manage stress. I love going for a walk and try to walk every day.

For more serious stress issues, you might seek medical advice. You might consider  individual therapy with a therapist; a group talking therapy, where with the support of others you share your worries, concerns and work through ways to deal with it; or an alternative approaches.

One of the approaches that are being recommended by many health professionals and is recognized by NICE – The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence that recommends the use of health technologies within the NHS (such as the use of new and existing medicines, treatments and procedures) – is Mindfulness.

I will be writing a number of follow up articles to share with you how to leverage and take advantage of some of the key aspects of Mindfulness to help you deal with and possibly reduce your stress levels.

In the meantime, I leave you with the following quote.

“The mind can go either direction under stress—toward positive or toward negative: on or off. Think of it as a spectrum whose extremes are unconsciousness at the negative end and hyperconsciousness at the positive end. The way the mind will lean under stress is strongly influenced by training.” Frank Herbert, Dune

Being in the Moment

“I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”Groucho Marx, The Essential Groucho: Writings For By And About Groucho Marx

This weekend involved a visit with a young friend to Windsor and Eton. It was cold and dry, with a brisk wind blowing along the river Thames. It is years since I visited Windsor and Eton and wanted to see what had changed in the town as well as spend time by the river.

There’s a newly built precinct filled with lots of upmarket shops and there is the old part of the town near to the castle with the narrow streets and cobbled areas. It really is an eclectic mix of old and new. As it was a Saturday, the town was filled with shoppers and tourists. There were many different nationalities in the town and it was a pleasant surprise to see so many people out and about despite the cold windy day.

My friend & I grabbed a coffee and a sandwich, sat for a while chatting and the decided to go for a walk along the river.

It was bitterly cold. The wind was blowing along the river and despite the number of swans and ducks on the river bank, there were very few people out and about either feeding the birds or walking along the river.

We walked away from the town towards the sports centre and then turned back. It was at this point that I noticed that there was a fountain in a nearbypark. The fountain in question is the Jubilee fountain, erected to celebrate the Queen’s diamond jubilee. The fountain is 25m long with a circular pool at the centre. In the middle of the pool is a geyser with a “crown” of 60 water jets.

We sat on a bench and watched the fountain as it jetted water into the air. For ten minutes we sat in quiet contemplation; watching the jets along the length of the fountain.

Being in the moment, I noticed that each single jet did not repeat the symmetry of the water as it was jetted into the air. The effect of the wind and the weather obviously has an effect. Perhaps there are pressure differentials. Who knows.

What I noticed was that moment, to moment, every single jet was unique. The motion of the water was wonderful to see. I pointed it out to my friend and we continued to sit for a few moments, observing the fountain in motion.

I took a short – 15 second video of the fountain to save the memory. You can see the video the link below. If you watch closely you too will see that the vertical jets at the front do not repeat and are uniquely jetting.

I leave you with the following quote:

“The art of living… is neither careless drifting on the one hand nor fearful clinging to the past on the other. It consists in being sensitive to each moment, in regarding it as utterly new and unique, in having the mind open and wholly receptive.”― Alan W. Watts