Your Brain On Stress: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
Stress- even the word itself invokes a minimal spike in most people’s heart rate. In today’s world, we have become so accustomed to hearing, seeing, and feeling stress- whether it be through tv shows, movies, social media, and blog posts (like this one!) we’ve come to accept it as a natural part of our everyday lives.
But- should we? Is stress even good for us? And if so, what type of stress is okay? And what type is dangerous?
To begin answering such questions, we must dive straight into the body and the brain- the main initiator of all the cascading effects we label as “stress”.
You can think of stress as your natural biochemical and hormonal response to stimuli internally and externally. Stress can also be triggered by physical expenditure (exercise), traumatic experiences, mental thought patterns, and memory. The stress response is initiated in the brain in an area called the hypothalamus which is in charge of regulating your autonomic nervous system and your pituitary gland. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands form what is known as the HPA axis which regulates the body’s stress response.
We have a two-step process for how our bodies deal with stress in the short-term vs. the long term.
The cascade process goes something like this:
Your amygdala, which processes emotions and responds to fear, gets activated by a stressful event. The amygdala signals to the hypothalamus and turns on the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) activating the adrenal glands to secrete epinephrine and norepinephrine into the bloodstream. This causes an increase in heart rate, pulse, oxygen circulation, glucose circulation, and focus.
If you’ve ever been walking casually in NYC and attempted to cross the street without fully checking all directions, you’ve probably experienced the jolt of almost being hit by a speeding car. That jolt is your immediate stress response.
If your brain continues to register danger/fear/stress, however, your hypothalamus will start pouring out corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). CRH stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH travels to the adrenal glands via the bloodstream and binds to receptors on the cells to stimulate the production of glucocorticoids, such as cortisol. An increase in cortisol results in an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and suppression of the immune system. Luckily, our bodies come with a natural negative-feedback loop. So as cortisol levels rise, they are able to travel to the hypothalamus and bind to cells to shut off the production of CRH and thus, end cortisol production. The parasympathetic nervous system is triggered and the body begins to return back to homeostasis.
Stress is a complicated process because it involves the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. That is why chronic stress often leads to various autoimmune disorders and hormonal imbalances (such as those that can cause low libido, acne flare-ups, IBS, and sleep issues).
To understand how stress is initiated in your body, you have to look not just at the internal mechanisms and pathways, but at the external as well.
are all examples of external situations that trigger our stress response and, through mental repetition, keep it going for an extended period of time. This repetition reinforces the neural pathways in our brain and the memories associated with that feeling.
So the more we think about our problem, the more problematic it becomes and consequently, so does our stress.
Our innate ability to have a stress response is great! If it weren’t for our ability to quickly recognize the danger and react appropriately to it with focus, we wouldn’t have survived as a species long ago. However, we don’t live in caves anymore, nor do we hunt for our food in the jungles so even though our lives have changed dramatically over the course of thousands of years, our stress response hasn’t.
If you’re a runner prepping for your race or an educator waiting to get onto a stage to wow the crowd with your speech- tapping into your stress response can actually help you perform certain tasks better with increased attention, focus, and oxygen circulation.
Leaning into your own stress response early on can be a great way to practice self-discipline and awareness. By having a better understanding of your own body, and how it functions you can take advantage of the benefits of your short-term stress response to enhance your performance on a task- but just don’t let yourself get swept under the hormonal current that leads to long-term stress because that’s when the problems start to happen.
Procrastinating for an exam only to cram all the information in last minute and get sick the day of the exam.
Worrying about a family member’s health and losing sleep over it.
Taking on more work than you can handle at a new job only to find that you’re skipping lunch and drinking late into the night to deal with the anxiety.
Applying to a university only to spend the next few months in a state of panic over your future acceptance.
Do you notice one common thread? Other than these examples being universal in one way or another?
That common thread can be referred to as “perceived danger”.
Our perception is inherently biased. As such, the way we see, experience, and react to an external event is different from anyone else. If we grew up being fearful of clowns, going to a nice park and seeing a kid’s birthday party may spark thoughts of happiness… until the clown appears and our memory of a past fearful and stressful event involving a clown (cause’ let’s be honest- are there any happy memories we have of clowns?) is triggered.
The majority of us live our lives based off of previous experiences we have had. If driving in traffic to work caused you stress last year- most likely driving today will do the same. Our minds love repetition, pattern, and ritual because that is where it finds balance. Yet, as I’m sure you already know, life is a lot less repetition and a lot more change. This juxtaposition, between what our minds and thoughts want from life and how life is, is one of the main reasons how short-term stress begins to turn into chronic stress.
It is a well-known fact in the science community that while initially, your short-term stress response may promote immunity, long-term stress not only downregulates immune cell function but proliferation. What is important to note here is that it takes milliseconds/seconds for your short-term stress response to kick in and boost immunity but that in just an hour of continued stress, immune function is weakened.
When you feel like collapsing because your head hurts, your body is extremely fatigued, and your mind seems cloudier than a typical Portland, OR day- you’ve probably got burn out. Burn out happens more often now than ever before because our society has become addicted to quick fixes, instantaneous results, and “the hustle”.
When you are burnt out, your HPA axis has been active for too long and you’ve been running on a steady stream of cortisol. Not only is your body going through massive internal chemical imbalance but scientists have found that burn out leads to physical changes in your brain structure. Not only does burn out affect your emotional and psychological wellbeing, but it also has detrimental effects on your physiology as increased levels of cortisol lead to an increased appetite, high blood pressure due to blood vessel damage, suppressed immune system, and poor digestion. If chronic stress goes unchecked, it can (and unfortunately in most cases does) lead to autoimmune diseases, cancer, and chronic illness due to infectious disease.
So yea- chronic stress is horrible. It’s also extremely prevalent and it’s a wild guess, but I assume you’ve experienced it at least once in your life.
I’ve always been a big believer of the quote” knowledge is power” so my hope for you is that you utilize this knowledge to prevent your stress from taking over your life. And when something or someone triggers your stress response and causes you to feel anxious, or negative in any emotional, psychological, or physical way- you recognize the pattern, apply preventative measures, and remember just how quickly your stress can go from good, to bad, to ugly.
Julia is a content writer and yogi currently exploring the intersection between science, spirituality, health, and wellbeing ❤ You can connect with her through Instagram, Facebook, and on Breathe & Ground.
Your Brain On Stress: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
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