Stress sometimes gets a bad rap. Most of the time, we think of stress as something negative, and it can be. Stress can lead to a host of health issues including heart disease and cognitive decline. But other types of stress can deliver benefits, including to your brain.
Defined in part as a physical and mental reaction to life’s experiences, stress affects all of us. But not in the same ways or for the same reasons. The root of stress, the severity, and the duration in part determine if it is good or bad for you, your body, your brain.
On the positive side, the stress response signals you to flee from danger, be it an oncoming car veering out of control or a venomous snake curled up on your path. It’s what helped our ancestors survive in a harsh world, with constant physical pressures.
And, at certain times even in modern life, stress helps us build our capacity and resilience. An event that is rewarding, such as the birth of a baby, brings stress and excitement. And challenges at work or in our personal life can bring stress and lead to growth. Psychologists call positive stress eustress, the opposite of distress.
Physical activity also can be a form of eustress – with the right intensity, frequency, and duration. Repeated mild stress that resolves, such as from moderate exercise or, nutritionally, from intermittent fasting, can support cognitive health.
But long-term, unresolved, and unremitting stress creates problems.
When stress is chronic or severe, we’re more at risk for developing diseases. Chronic exposure to stress wreaks havoc on our bodies. And that can lead to and be worsened by chronic health conditions including hypertension, heart disease, obesity, sleep disorders, and dementia.
How Stress Works in the Brain and Body
When a stressful event occurs, the brain’s amygdala processes the emotional signals and sends a distress call to the hypothalamus, the switchboard of the brain. This command center triggers the sympathetic nervous system, releasing stress hormones to prepare for flight, fight, or freeze. Heart rate and breathing increase. More blood flows to muscles and vital organs. Oxygen increases. Stored glucose and fats enter the blood stream.
The sympathetic nervous system continues its vigilance as long as it perceives a threat. Then the other part of the autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system, calms the body down after the perceived danger passes. Or at least that’s the way the system is designed to work. But when these signals can’t or don’t turn off and the stress is unremitting, bigger problems can start to develop. Harmless exposures and experiences are perceived as bigger threats.
When You Can’t Turn Off the Stress
No one is immune from stress. It confronts us at work, at home, in the community and world. But our responses differ from person to person. Some of that may be wired at an early age because of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or later in life due to trauma.
Now, 2+ years into a pandemic, with rising inflation, global unrest, and other stressors, many American adults find themselves emotionally overwhelmed and fatigued. Emotional impacts of loss and loneliness linger.
The Stress in America 2022 study conducted by the American Psychological Association explains what many in the United States have experienced, including how our coping mechanisms of stress eating and drinking remain entrenched. Mental and physical health are on a continuing decline for many Americans as a result.
On the positive side, 7 in 10 Americans say they’ve gotten better at prioritizing what is important to them, and more than half report that they’ve enjoyed having fewer plans than they did before the pandemic.
Changing The Way You React To Stress
While we can’t avoid stress altogether, we can affect how we respond to our stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis (hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands) activated. Without countering the stress response and activating the parasympathetic nervous system, adrenaline can damage blood vessels and arteries, leading to heart attacks and strokes. And cortisol can contribute to weight gain and fat tissue buildup.
It’s essential to help the parasympathetic nervous system do its job.
Some approaches include mindfulness, meditation, prayer, massage, exercise, adequate sleep, and unplugging from news and social media. You can read more about some of those here, and we’ll talk about them more fully in an upcoming article.
So how’s your current response to stress working for you? What’s going well? And what’s something you might need or want to do differently, to help your brain on stress?
As a national board-certified health and wellness coach, Amy Hoogervorst offers grace and space for a healthier you. If you need help fitting healthier habits, including those around stress management, into your life for more energy, focus, and fun, schedule a free discovery call with Amy to learn more about how health coaching might benefit you.