There are some people who will tell you that they thrive in stressful environments. Stress pushes them to succeed. Others seem to crumble under its power. They are stressed out all the time. So, what is the truth about stress? Do you have a stressed-out brain?
Stress is the body’s response when it faces a threat, whether perceived or real. It causes your heart to pound, and adrenaline to course through your veins muscles tense, ready to act, and your brain is on high alert. This stress response still lingers, and in truth, it’s wreaking havoc.
Note: this post contains affiliate links.
The Perceived Threat
You would want your body to respond if you were faced with a shadowy figure in a dark alley when swimming with sharks, or a burglar has found their way into your home. It called the “fight-or-flight” response.
However, the majority of threatening situations we find ourselves in are subjective. While others may find typical work situations difficult to cope with, others won’t. Scientists haven’t yet determined the neural mechanisms that combine the information flooding our senses with prior experience to cause the brain to determine a situation is dangerous.
There are, however, three major parts of the body that control the response – the adrenal glands near the kidneys, and the brain’s pituitary and hypothalamus.
What Happens in the Stressed-Out Brain?
Once the brain has sensed danger, it immediately transmits signals to the adrenal glands, triggering the release of adrenaline. Once adrenaline is released, blood sugar spikes, raising the blood pressure and increasing heart rate.
Then the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of hormones. These travel the bloodstream within minutes, producing cortisol.
Cortisol is the hormone that stimulates blood sugar and blood pressure, helping you to escape from the danger. This, of course, isn’t very helpful when the danger is your boss chewing you out, or your toddler throwing a tantrum.
If you would like to know more, you can check out the article at Simply Psychology.
The Long-Term Effect of Stress
Our stress response is the perfect response to a short-term event. However, if it continues for weeks (or even years), it can be incredibly damaging. Long-term stress can impact your immune system, affect your blood pressure, weight, and reduce the number of brain cells you have. According to the European Journal of Neuroscience, the long-term effect of stress on the brain includes memory loss.
Does Stress Kill Brain Cells?
Yes, and it’s all because of the stress hormone, cortisol. In a study reported by Molecular Psychiatry, giving rats a daily injection of rat cortisol over numerous weeks resulted in the death of brain cells. Stressing the rodents out for the same amount of time every day produced the same effect.
Cortisol damages and kills brain cells in the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing memory. Chronic stress can also cause the brain to age prematurely.
We would die without cortisol, yet too much of it causes severe damage to the brain and leaves you more vulnerable to heart disease, stroke, and stressful events.
Cortisol Excites Brain Cells to Death
When the brain releases cortisol, it travels to the brain and binds to receptors located within neurons. This creates numerous reactions, and while it’s helpful in a life-threatening situation, it causes neurons to fire too often and die. Your brain cells are actually excited to death.
Additionally, WebMD tells us that the link between chronic stress and depression is clear, especially since one of depression’s common features is an excess of cortisol.
The Growth of New Brain Cells
The adult brain will produce new neurons, however, in restricted areas. While your brain may make new neurons every day, the number it will produce is limited by the levels of cortisol.
Therefore, high levels of cortisol are actively killing your brain cells, and preventing your brain from replacing them with the levels it would normally. Anti-depressants work to increase serotonin, which contributes to increasing the rate by which neurons are made.
Ways to Reduce Stress
Reducing stress levels is key to maintaining a high level of emotional, physical, and mental health. There are many things you can do to keep your stress well managed. The key is to make a deliberate effort and have a plan.
Everyone is different, and so you need to do what works for you, here are 25 stress reducers to try. I have included some suggestions for some that you can find on Amazon. Don’t have Amazon Prime? Try Amazon Prime 30-Day Free Trial
1. Avoid stressful situations
2. Exercise, including Tai chi or yoga
Yoga Therapy for Back Pain and Stress Relief.
3. Meditation, self-hypnosis, or guided imagery
Guided Meditation for Relaxation, Stress Relief, and Anxiety
4. Progressive muscle relaxation
The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, Chapter 4
5. Deep breathing
Breathing: the Master Key to Self Healing by Andrew Weil, MD
6. Warm baths
7. Massage or spa day
Percussion Action Massager with Heat (I have this; not a trip to a spa, but it helps with muscle tension)
8. Aromatherapy, especially lavender and ylang-ylang essential oils induce calm and melt away stress
Lavender and ylang-ylang essential oils; the diffuser we use
9. Take regular breaks
10. Stop multitasking
The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing it All” Gets Nothing Done by Dave Crenshaw
12. Get a hobby that you love
150+ Hobby Ideas Broken Down by Interest and Personality blog post by Hobby Lark
13. Be present
14. Practice mindfulness, which will help you focus on only the present moment
15. Act silly
16. Play a game or work on a puzzle
Starry Night jigsaw puzzle, Pictionary (this could go along with #15), Sudoku
17. Sip chamomile tea
Taylors Organic Chamomile Herbal Tea, the teapot we bought for Christmas
18. Boost your vitamin and mineral intake, including magnesium, as deficiencies induce stress
19. Consider an elimination diet; the food you eat can affect your stress
The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom by Melissa and Dallas Hartwig (this helped me discover intolerances to food and I have lost over 50 pounds so far)
20. Avoid junk food
From Junk Food to Joy Food by Joy Bauer
21. Lower your sugar intake, as sugar spikes blood sugar levels causing you to crash and burn
The Sugar Detox: Lose the Sugar, Lose the Weight by Brooke Alpert and Patricia Farris
22. Cuddle with your pet
23. Go outside into nature and breathe fresh air
24. Connect with others and socialize
25. Learn to say no to avoid overwhelm that leads to stress
Here are some other posts on stress and anxiety:
Do You Have Anxiety? It Could Be Affecting Your Sleep
7 Rules to Reduce Stress and Improve Sleep
5 Ways to Reduce Stress in Your Life
7 Healthy Methods of Coping with Chronic Stress
11 Unhealthy Methods of Coping with Chronic Stress
What You Can Do to Limit Chronic Stress and Loss of Cognitive Abilities