Updated: Sep 1
There is no doubt we have all had more stress with the uncertainty that came along with the Covid-19 pandemic. It is important to know the effects of chronic stress on the brain and body to appreciate how important it is to properly manage stress.
Good Stress, Bad Stress
The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as simply “the brain’s response to any demand.” That said, not all stress is bad stress. Acute stress gives us the energy to react to a stimulus when necessary. However, chronic, long term stress can wreak havoc on the brain and body. Chronic stress comes in many forms, it can be a bad relationship, a high demanding job or school, financial struggles, or any other number of reasons.
Stress on the Brain & Body
When we are triggered by a stressor, our amygdala--the fear center of the brain, fires to the hypothalamus which signals the pituitary gland to stimulate the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Cortisol has several effects on the brain and body, it speeds up your heart rate to get your blood pumping. It constricts the blood vessels in your hands, feet, and gut to allow more blood to go to your arms and legs. It floods the hippocampus, an area crucial to memory formation and retention and it releases glucose from your liver and tissues to allow for energy production. All these effects are to enable a person to be ready to flee a situation or stay and fight it. In states of acute stress, once a person is out of danger, cortisol levels return to normal.
However, in states of chronic stress, the cortisol levels remain high. Therefore, the effects remain as well, which may lead to high blood pressure and digestive issues because of blood vessel constriction. Heart disease could occur from increased heart rate, blood sugar levels can get disrupted from cortisol’s affect on blood sugar and memory issues can arise due to its affect on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex in the brain.
Tips to Reduce Stress
To protect your brain and body from the effects of chronic stress here are some things to try.
Exercise: 30 minutes a day of exercise has been proven to reduce stress levels. Try to mix it up! Go for a walk, take a yoga class, lift some weights, or maybe even go for a hike. Getting outdoors helps reduce stress levels as well.
Quiet time: Whether is a good night’s sleep, meditation, prayer or just being still and taking some time to relax will help reduce stress and anxiety. Tune out from your electronic devices as they keep the brain constantly active and engaged. Disconnecting means de-stressing!
Get some help: If you recognize you are chronically stressed get professional help before it’s too late. You may need a counselor to work through the issues causing the stress. You may need help to decrease your cortisol levels, balance your blood sugar with diet, exercise, and specific supplementation. Lastly, you may even need to change the negative neuroplasticity impacts in the brain which can be done through functional neurology therapies.