Stress is a major health issue in many countries around the globe. According to the American Psychological Association, more than one-third of adults in America report that their stress increased over the past year. Twenty-four percent of adults report experiencing extreme stress, up from 18 percent the year before.
It’s well-known that stress can be a detriment to overall health. But can stress actually change the physiology of the brain? Science says yes.
What is stress?
The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as simply “the brain’s response to any demand.” Given that definition, not all stress is bad. It is simply a response. How harmful it is ultimately depends on its intensity, duration and treatment.
Stress takes a variety of forms. Some stress happens as the result of a single, short-term event — having an argument with a loved one, for example. Other stress happens due to recurring conditions, such as managing a long-term illness or a demanding job. When recurring conditions cause stress that is both intense and sustained over a long period, it can be referred to as “chronic” or “toxic” stress. While all stress triggers physiological reactions, chronic stress is specifically problematic because of the significant harm it can do to the functioning of the body and the brain.
What are the leading causes of stress?
The 2015 Stress in America survey reported that money and work were the top two sources of stress for adults in the United States for the eighth year in a row. Other common contributors included family responsibilities, personal health concerns, health problems affecting the family and the economy.
The study found that women consistently struggle with more stress than men. Millennials and Generation Xers deal with more stress than baby boomers. And those who face discrimination based on characteristics such as race, disability status or LGBT identification struggle with more stress than their counterparts who do not regularly encounter such societal biases.
Does stress have any physiological effects on the brain?
Stress is a chain reaction. “When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus”, Harvard Health Publications of Harvard Medical School explains. “This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee”.
This “fight-or-flight” response is responsible for the outward physical reactions most people associate with stress including increased heart rate, heightened senses, a deeper intake of oxygen and the rush of adrenaline. Finally, a hormone called cortisol is released, which helps to restore the energy lost in the response. When the stressful event is over, cortisol levels fall and the body returns to stasis.
What are the effects of chronic stress on the brain?
While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the build-up of cortisol in the brain can have long-term effects. Thus, chronic stress can lead to health problems.
Cortisol’s functions are part of the natural process of the body. In moderation, the hormone is perfectly normal and healthy. Its functions are multiple, explains the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. In addition to restoring balance to the body after a stress event, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels in cells and has utilitarian value in the hippocampus, where memories are stored and processed.
But when chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Stress can kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress. “Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight”, Christopher Bergland writes in Psychology Today.
Does stress have any effects on the body?
Chronic stress doesn’t just lead to impaired cognitive function. It can also lead to other significant problems, such as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other systems of the body stop working properly too, including the digestive, excretory and reproductive structures. Toxic stress can impair the body’s immune system and exacerbate any already existing illnesses.
Plasticity and the brain: the body’s recovery system
Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the ways that neural pathways are able to reform in the brain. It’s true that these pathways – like the one between the hippocampus and the amygdala – can get severely damaged due to constant exposure to stress, but such changes are not necessarily permanent. While stress can negatively affect the brain, the brain and body can recover.
Young adults, especially, are able to recover from the effects of stress, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Age has a direct correlation with the reversibility of stress-related damage. It’s much more difficult for older adults to regain or create new neural pathways than their younger counterparts.
That’s not to say all hope is lost for older adults. PNAS points out that “interventions,” or activities that combat stress’ wear-and-tear on the brain, are effective regardless of age. Interventions including activities like exercising regularly, socializing and finding purpose in life enable plasticity.
It can seem like stress is an inevitable part of life, but chronic stress can have real and significant consequences on the brain. Understanding these effects and how to combat them can help promote overall health.
6 proven ways to recover from stress
Stand up straight, and slow things down.
Stress, whether large and small, is a fact of life. At one point or another, we may face financial stress, the stresses of aging (our own or our parents’), loneliness, health concerns, or worries about getting into college or finding a job afterwards. You may have too much to do in too little time or face stressful conflicts in your personal relationships or parenting role. You may have gone through a breakup or lost somebody close to you. On a daily basis, you may face traffic, a messy house, long hours at work or childcare, or witness terrorism on the news.
Whatever your stress, you need coping tools. Following are six proven ways to reduce stress or recover more quickly.
1. Slow things down: Our brains and bodies were designed to face acute stressors and then have a period of recovery to relax, eat, sleep, or procreate before facing the next one. Today we often don’t get that period of rest and recovery. The next best thing is to take 5- or 10-minute mental breaks throughout the day to check in with yourself and notice any signs of tension in your body or of worry in your mind. Take some deep breaths and ask yourself what you need or what is the wisest thing to do right now, and then move forward more mindfully. This is an easy and quick way to bring mindfulness into your life. If it works for you, consider learning to meditate; there are a variety of apps with scripts to help you. Research shows that mindfulness interventions can lower your blood pressure and help your brain deal with stress more effectively.
2. Exercise: Studies show that aerobic exercise (like walking or running) has many stress-relieving benefits. It can improve your mood, help you sleep better, improve your focus and mental alertness, and make you feel fitter and more confident. It may even help your brain release dopamine or endogenous opiates that cause a temporary “runners high,” but that only happens occasionally, according to research. Exercise can also lower your blood pressure and help you maintain your weight, thus combating the effects of chronic stress on health. When you are chronically stressed, your cells can age quicker, as shown by shorter brain telomeres. However, moderate exercise several times a week can protect you from this effect.
3. Get in the green: If you walk outside in green spaces, or even look at pictures of nature scenes, you may be able to increase your resilience to stress. A study by Stanford researchers showed that walking in green campus parkland reduced anxiety and worry more than walking on a busy street and had cognitive benefits as well. In another study, students were stressed by having to take a math test and getting feedback (even if not accurate) that they were performing below average. After the stressor, researchers assigned participants to one of two groups that either saw pictures of empty pathways and trees or pictures of urban scenes with cars and people. Those who saw the pictures of trees had faster cardiovascular recovery from stress (e.g., heart rate slowed down faster).
4. Smile: A study by Tara Kraft and Sarah Preston at the University of Kansas showed that smiling—even if they’re fake smiles—can help your body resist stress. In this clever study, the researchers used chopsticks to arrange subjects’ mouths into either (fake) smiles or neutral expressions. Half the subjects in the smile group did not know they were smiling. The other half were told to smile and therefore had genuine smiles (which involve moving both eye muscles and mouth muscles). But both smiling groups had lower heart rate than the neutral group after performing a stressful task. The group with genuine smiles had the lowest heart rate overall; the fake smile group had less of a drop in positive mood during the stressor. The researchers suggest that moving your facial muscles sends a message to your brain that can influence your mood.
5. Stand upright: Do you remember your mother telling you to stand up straight when you were little? Well it turns out that standing in an upright pose actually helps you perform better under stress, as compared to slouching. In another clever study, published in the journal Health Psychology, researchers assigned people to either stand upright or slouch. The researchers held the subjects in position with physiotherapy tape (after giving them a cover story). Both groups then had to do a stressful speech task. The upright group performed better and had less fear and more positive mood, compared to the slouchers. They were also less self-conscious. So the next time you’re under stress, remember to stand tall.
6. Try to see your stress as a challenge: A study by Harvard and Yale researchers shows that your attitude toward stress matters and that people can learn more positive attitudes. The researchers showed one of two brief video clips to managers at a large, multinational banking firm, then measured their mood and work performance in subsequent weeks. These managers had high-pressure jobs with quotas they had to meet. One group saw a clip showing the negative effects of stress while the other group saw a clip about seeing stress as a positive challenge. The group that saw the clip about the positive aspects of stress actually felt less stressed—they engaged more at work and were happier and healthier. They also reported a 23% decrease in stress-related physical symptoms (like backache) compared to the group whose members saw the negative video. So try to see your stressors as challenges that you can learn from (even if it’s just learning to tolerate stress).
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Thanks for reading.
Love & smiles,
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