Stress. This word can evoke a variety of emotions within us, and means different things to different people. You might immediately think about the length of your to-do list. Or maybe it is a relationship that is stressing you out. Perhaps, even, it is a financial pressure or career choice that is causing you to feel the effects of stress.
You might be surprised to learn that some stress is good for us (and more on this in a second). It’s actually beneficial to keep our brains functioning properly.
I have had a love affair with the brain for years. The more I learn about this organ, the more I want to learn. This passion even lead me to launch a consulting company that teaches people about the brain! One of the most impactful things that I have learned during this journey is how impactful chronic stress is on us. Spoiler alert: chronic stress is not good for our brains and bodies. Chronic stress impacts the brain very negatively and can have a ripple effect on your body and health.
There are two types of stress: acute and chronic.
Acute stress is actually good for our brains and is short and does not have lasting effects on us. When you almost hit someone in your car and have to stop and get anxious about that. That is acute stress. When you are in an unhealthy relationship that consistently makes you feel stressed and anxious, this is chronic stress.
Chronic, toxic stress is constant and consistent stress. There are a variety of things that can cause chronic stress, but some examples are a dysfunctional family, major work issues, abusive or unhealthy relationships.
I would encourage you to pause here and think about your stress. What is stressing you out? Do you think it is acute or chronic? Having an understanding of the type of stress you are dealing with will help you to manage the symptoms.
I won’t get too scientific on you, but stress sets off a process in the brain that can have long-term effects on your body.
The amygdala is in the back part of our brain and is almond-shaped. It is the fight, flight or freeze part of our brain. It also controls our impulses and attaches emotions to memories. With experiencing any type of stress, the amygdala sets off a process that increases adrenaline and cortisol and increases our heart rate.
When we are experiencing acute, short-term stress, our heart rate goes down and our adrenaline and cortisol levels will decrease after a relatively short amount of time. With consistent, unrelenting stress, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline don’t decrease. That means are heart rate does not go down to a normal level. Additionally, because cortisol is involved in so many things in our bodies, it decreases our ability fight infections, can make us gain weight, is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early death.
Additionally, we can experience memory loss as well as decreased levels of serotonin and dopamine. Those two chemicals are linked to happiness. When they’re too low, this can lead to anxiety and depression. Finally, chronic stress can increase the size of our amygdala and decrease the size of our prefrontal cortex. That is to say that we become more impulsive and have a harder time with decision making, long-term planning, focusing and organizing.
In one of my previous jobs, I was definitely dealing with chronic stress. I loved my job but always felt like I had so much going on and never could find the bottom of my to-do list.
The increased levels of cortisol definitely caused weight gain (particularly in my belly — yikes). While the job fit my interests, passions, talents, and skills, it was not a healthy environment for me to be in. The chronic stress was wreaking havoc on my life and nothing is worth the risk of the symptoms I listed above — including early death.
Now that I have told you about the gloom and doom associated with stress, I want to give you some coping mechanisms.
We all deal with stress, and it’s only natural that some points in our lives will be more stressful than others. If you are feeling the effects of chronic stress, I encourage you to evaluate the source of that stress. If you aren’t able to remove it immediately, use some of the coping mechanisms we discussed to lessen the effects. Your brain is depending on it.
Originally published on GenTwenty.com.
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