When those unmistakable signs of stress start to creep up in life, as they do for everyone, it can really do a number on your health. Most people think that stress and anxiety are mental, internal problems, but they can also manifest in many different physical symptoms too. To understand the incredible power that stress can have over our lives, we need to understand what happens in our brain when stress rears its ugly head.
Worrying, Anxiety, Stress and the Brain
Although most people use words like stress, anxiety and worrying interchangeably, there are actually many different subsets and types of these issues. Some types of stress are actually good for the body! Before we dig into the complexities of stress on the brain and body, we should briefly explore these common terms and identify the differences between them.
This is a natural part of the human experience; with self-awareness comes higher-level thinking, possession, property, familial loyalty, altruism. Essentially, when we begin to care about things in an abstract sense, we have something to lose. This can result in worrying, which is largely dominated by our emotions, rather than our good sense. Research into the effects of worrying have determined that more than 85% of things that we worry about, on average, never come to pass (source).
When we worry, the connection from the emotional part of the brain (the limbic system) to the cognitive part of the brain (the cortex) is activated. Neurologists have found that the connections are stronger in the emotional – cognitive direction. This means that it is natural for our emotions to overtake our good sense, resulting in worrying. When the amygdala responds to a threatening situation or potential danger, it informs the cortex, insisting that stress hormones should be released to handle the threat. If you are able to better control your emotions, and strengthen the neural pathway in the cognitive – emotional direction, you can significantly reduce the amount of stress hormones released by the brain.
Although people may ofter say, “I’m stressed”, but mean “I’m anxious”, and vice versa, there is a definite difference. Anxiety is one of the negative effects of stress, and is generally centered on feelings of dread, fear or impending doom. Anxiety is what remains once the actual stressor is gone. For example, if you were held up at gunpoint, that event was packed with acute stress, but weeks later, even when the initial stressor is long gone, the anxiety caused by that event may remain. You may get anxious at just the thought of leaving the house; this type of anxiety can be debilitating.
This is an umbrella term for any of the pressures that we feel in life, which can impact our body and mind in many ways, resulting in a wide range of negative and positive effects. The presence of stress hormones in the body are crucial for survival in dangerous situations. You have certainly heard of the “fight or flight” response of the human body, which is why our body’s sensitivity to stress is so important. This release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland during a traumatic event is considered “acute stress”, and the body will return stress hormones to normal levels after the threat has passed.
There is also positive stress, such as the sensation leading up to a big presentation or job interview, as well as the stress that can induce superhuman or unbelievable acts (e.g., lifting a car off your infant child). Some stress is considered “tolerable”, such as ending a relationship, while other forms of stress are “toxic”, and can destroy your social skills and force you into isolation, self-harm, poor nutrition or even suicide.
Chronic stress is what many people suffer in today’s modern era. With so many demands on our time and attention, and the world changing at such a rapid pace, being at a base state of stress almost seems normal. However, by remaining at a constant level of stress, it floods the body with stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. This can raise your blood pressure, increase adipose fat storage in the body, negatively affect the memory center of the brain, and much more.
Over time, the body begins to expect this “new normal”, and you might not even realize that your body is constantly in a state of stress. Only 1/3 of people who suffer from stress-related disorders seek professional help, and often, they are simply given pharmaceutical drugs that mask the symptoms, but do nothing for the underlying cause. If you want to change the way your brain operates, it has to be a conscious decision on your part; relying on pharmaceuticals is not only unproven, but can even be dangerous.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, on the other hand, can be an effective method for reducing stress levels by introducing techniques that avoid the fight-or-flight response by the body.
Direct Effects of Stress on the Brain
Aside from the release of stress hormones in response to a perceived threat or emotional event, stress can affect the brain in many other ways as well. Chronic stress, in particular, can do some real damage to neural function.
The constant presence of cortisol can result in an excess of glutamate, another neurotransmitter. Glutamate also creates high levels of free radicals, which can kill brain cells and increase risk of memory loss and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Cortisol also stops the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which means that fewer new brain cells can form.
Furthermore, when you weaken the neural pathways through constant stress, you become forgetful and tend to rely more on emotions than good sense. This can lead into a vicious cycle of irrational worry, stress and anxiety. Serotonin and dopamine are the “happy” neurotransmitters, but levels of these critical chemicals drop when you are chronically stressed, meaning that depression, mood swings and addiction are far more likely.
Stress has many other effects on the brain too, none of which bode well for a long and happy life. The most important thing you can do is try to calm down, approach things rationally, keep your emotions under control, rely on your support network when you need it, and seek out professional or medical help if you can’t quite eliminate the stress on your own!