“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