Our magnificent brains perceive stress a few different ways.
Physiological Stress – being chased by a lion, defending against an intruder, being in a car accident, etc.
Perceptual Stress – thinking that we may be in danger based on things around us, like a weird person following us at night, getting on a plane and thinking it might crash, etc.
Imaginary Stress – made up thoughts that aren’t actually occurring but that we stress about, for example “If I don’t perform at work I wont get a bonus and wont be able to pay my bills.”
Our brain can NOT differentiate between these stressors, and reacts the same to each one.
As our brain’s stress responses are activated, hormones flood the system that are intended to get us through short term, life saving situations (what stress originally was). Those hormones allow us to focus, think fast and make decisions by shutting down or temporarily disabling other processes like digestion, immunity, sleep and repair. The problem is, that this response was intended to be temporary – not chronic. As these hormones stay flooded throughout our systems we begin to see the negative effects in symptoms like digestive issues, sleeping difficulty, immune suppression, increased illness, and organ damage. This damage to our organs is shown in various ways, like brain scans showing atrophy of brain tissue and depletion of neurons and in cardiovascular labs with increased arterial plaquing and increased constriction of the arteries causing high blood pressure. What you think about and what you stress about, can in fact, make you sick.
The top 10 damaging stressors in our lives according to the American Institute of Stress are:
1) Childhood trauma
2) Death of a loved one
7) Personal relationships
8) Caregiver for a critically ill child or spouse
In the Terman Longevity Project, they found that job stress, and in particular, the interpersonal relationships we deal with at our jobs, is a major risk factor for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
In the MacArthur Successful Aging Study they showed that job stress produced high levels of stress hormones that actually cause repeated surges of blood pressure and heart rate that increase the risk of heart disease due to: increased blood pressure, accelerated plaque formation that restricts blood flow, increased abdominal obesity, increased insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, and an overall decreased immune response.
The average person in the MacArthur Study under “chronic job stress” producing these outcomes had the following:
• Blood Pressure of around 148/83
• Waist to Hip Ratio of >0.94
• Total Cholesterol to HDL Ratio of >5.9
• HDL Cholesterol level of <46 p="">
Chronic stress can change the size and shape of our brain, affecting our memory as well.
The prolonged exposure to cortisol and other stress related events actually cause atrophy of the frontal and hippocampal areas, resulting in a reduced ability to encode and organize new memories. And we all know how stressful it is when we begin to forget things or can’t recall where we’ve put something or what someone has told us. Those little disruptions are red flags your body is waving, trying to signal you that something is wrong and not functioning correctly.
Chronic stress is also strongly associated with the development of depression and anxiety.
The chronic stress causes atrophy of the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for control, leading to a lack of control over the emotional events we experience. This lack of control over our emotions tends to cause a distorted and negative view about the world: the glass is half empty. Its estimated the 4% of the world population suffers from depression. Yep, 4% of the WORLD.
It’s also important that we look at our “second brain” as well: The Gut.
There is an intricate network of 100 million neurons (brain cells) that are embedded into the gut wall and connected to the brain by the vagus nerve. There are 100 trillion bacteria in the gut and those little bugs have a significant effect on how the brain functions, including how the brain responds to stress and therefore, depression and anxiety. A 2011 British Nutrition study showed that just a 30 day course of probiotics led to decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety in humans.
Stress has become a part of our culture, something we’ve come to accept as normal and even something we learn to thrive on. However, what all of this science tells us, is that it is literally killing us. Stress is a major player in the top 7 causes of death in the United States, and some in the health community say that it is the biggest killer of Americans.
So lets turn the culture of Stress around and start to fight it like we do Cancer and Heart Disease. Here’s how.
Of course there are lots of medications to choose from. But, lets rule out more natural and cognitive reasons you may be coping with stress inefficiently first. I challenge you to try these methods for at least 6 months before moving to a medication. In most cases, even if you still need help from medication, your strength and dosage needed will be much less after incorporating these first.
1) Rule out SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) by getting your Vitamin D levels checked. Supplementing with Vitamin D3 pills, drops or gummies can relieve this contributing factor fairly quickly. You can also buy SAD lights to put at your desk or in your home.
2) Take your probiotics. Since one of the variables that can contribute to damaged brain function involves the gut, lets just make sure you have the right amount of the right types of bacteria hanging out down there. I recommend a probiotic in the billions (CFU count will be listed on the bottle) with at least 4 different strains of bacteria.
3) Exercise. I know – no one wants to hear this and no one “has time” for this. But hear me out. Exercise, even 2 times per week for 30-60 minutes or just 20 minute walks each day, enormously improves cognitive performance, long-term memory and problem solving. All essential for managing stress. This consistent exercise literally cuts your risk for general dementia in half. Impressive? It cuts your risk for Alzheimer’s Disease by 67% and cuts your risk of Stroke by 57%. So get moving.
4) Go to the doctor. Awareness is where you have to start. Ruling out contributing factors that may affect your brain chemistry like thyroid disorders, is so easy to do with a simple blood draw. But you have to actually go to the doctor and ask for labs to rule that out. You should also be aware of your weight trends over time, as abdominal obesity is a surefire sign of poorly managed stress. Go to the doctor, be honest, and get checked out – once a year.
5) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Go see a therapist. I believe everyone can benefit from talking to an experienced and non-biased third party about our problems. There is nothing bad that can ever come of that. Sometimes we need to vent to release stress and anger, and other times we need to be guided on how to restructure those negative or catastrophic thoughts that bring us fear and produce anxiety and depressed moods. CBT is a proven method to help restructure the way our brain sends signals and communicates with our emotions and thoughts – leading to reduced stress, reduced disease, reduces depression and reduced anxiety.
For a list of some great doctors, therapist and other health care practitioners that can help you with these please see our referral list of people we work with and love.
Life is short, so figure out a way that works for YOU to be able to properly deal with stress in your life so you can repair any damage done and get to go enjoy life!
INR Study: Stress, Anxiety & Depression.
Friedman HS, Martin LR. The Longevity Project. New York: Hudson Street Press, 2011.
The MacArthur Foundation Successful Aging Studies.
Medina J. Brain Rules. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008.