The stressed mind and it’s effects on our health
Stress changes us. It affects our body’s function in many ways. On a deeper, biochemical level, stress has the ability to reshape our brain and how our mind functions. This can cause issues with our ability to manage moods, memory and learning, emotional regulation and can drive anxiety and depression.
How does stress affect our brain chemistry?
Our brain is the ‘central processing unit’ of stress and adaptation to stress. The brain itself is affected by the chemicals and hormones that are released during times of stress. Although short term stress and its stimulating effects can increase our activity and performance, long term, chronic stress can have brain-changing effects that we don’t want. Cortisol and the biochemistry it triggers affects the prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain. Depending on the severity and duration of stress, these areas of the brain can actually change in size, mostly reducing due atrophy. These parts of our brain are involved in learning, memory, intuition, empathy, regulation of emotion and fear responses. If these areas are affected by chronic or severe stress, then our coping abilities in parts of our mind can diminish. As an example, we may have issues with memory, weakened impulse control or an increase in irritability and reckless behaviour. Added to this, chronic stress increases inflammation in the body, suppresses the immune system and can interfere with our circadian rhythm affecting sleep.
Why would our intelligent body’s do this? This is no accident of biochemistry, the effects of stress on the brain are by design. Our stress response is designed for primordial times. In these times threats to our survival were a very real thing. The stimulation of stress gave back then caused caution, alertness through fear, and more instinctual response to danger. Perhaps an outdated and exaggerated response for 21st-century living?
“Pressure and stress is the common cold of the psyche.” Andrew Denton
Resetting the stressed brain in modern times
These days our stress is not necessarily triggered by threats to our immediate survival as they were in times long ago. Modern stress can come from work pressure, personal life, financial issues, life events, past trauma or stress felt from our own internal analysis such as negative perception on body image, life direction and so on. Although these stresses are very different from what we would have felt in primordial times, our biochemistry can respond in the same way.
What we can realise in today’s world is that we are not entirely victims to our biochemistry. There is much we can do to manage stress and support brain, hormone and body health during stressful times.
The first step in managing stress is recognising when we are stressed. Taking a regular step-back from our day or week to look at what might be affecting us can shine the light the pressures affecting us. Notice changes in mood swings, irritability, restlessness or problem sleep, persistent mind chatter or worrying thoughts, shallow breathing, tension in the body, especially neck and shoulders which are all signs stress is affecting us. Get to know your body, how do you feel when you are relaxed? How do respond or cope with stress? What habits do you pick up when stressed?
So, ask yourself now, are you feeling stressed?
How to manage stress for a more balanced body and mind
- Re-frame your stress: Is your stress just a perception? Do you feel like you add to or create the pressure you are feeling with your own self-imposed standards or expectations? Re-framing your stress means to look at it from another perspective with an aim to adjust your view. With chronic stress issues this can be difficult, so do reach out to a psychologist or counsellor who can help you do this. You don’t have to tackle this on your own.
- Exercise: Moderate exercise helps balance out the stress chemistry in the body by reducing high cortisol levels and increasing blood flow to the brain throughout the body.
- Mindfulness and relaxation: Yoga, breathing, walks out in nature, mediations, prayer, art & craft, and music are all effective ways of reducing stress and can assist us to move our body into the necessary rest it needs to recover from the stimulating effects of stress.
- Healthy eating: Avoiding inflammatory foods such as processed, sugary foods, alcohol and fried foods helps to combat the inflammatory load of stress. Eating more fresh vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fish helps supply the body with anti-inflammatory, restorative nutrients.
- Community and social support: Reconnecting with your community and positive social support is an important part of healing for people who are experiencing long term stress or recovering from trauma. Touching base with family, reaching out to friends or even volunteering in your local community can help you feel an important kind of stability and reminder that you are not alone.
- Herbal medicines: There are numerous, clinically trialled herbal medicines that have shown to reduce and repair the effects of stress on the body. Your Naturopath is able to assess your health and look for signs in how stress may have affected your internal chemistry and formulate herbal medicines to your needs. This will assist in bringing you back to your balance.
We all experience stress, so don’t ignore it or wait for better times. Look for ways you can help yourself right now. This will improve your ability to cope and maintain balance for a happier and healthier ‘right now’.