How do you feel when you talk in front of a large group of people? Your heart might start to race or you might become sweaty. You could freeze and forget your thoughts or become shaky in your body and words. These are all symptoms of stress. For many people stress is a normal part of everyday life. However, this can cause negative effects to the brain and body if they are under stress for an extended period of time.
What happens inside the brain when we have an exaggerated stress response? First we must understand what the stress response is. The stress response, also known as your fight-or-flight response, is the physical and thought responses to your perception of a situation. Typically this situation is something that makes you feel that your life is being threatened in some form and invokes a plethora of negative emotions. There are four categories of stress: Physical, Mental/Emotional, Chemical, and Autosuggestion. The following are examples of each of the stressors.
Lack of Sleep
|Worry, Fear, Anger|
|The self-induced positive/negative thoughts, behaviors, and feelings that typically occur subconsciously|
The brain receives help from other organs to calm you down when you tackle stressful and difficult situations. Stress is first perceived and interpreted by the sympathetic nervous system. From there the brain signals to the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis releasing hormones such as epinephrine and cortisol. There are three other changes that happen in the brain.
The amygdala is an area of the brain that is responsible for fear conditioning and emotional processing. When you experience a stressful situation the amygdala interprets the images and sounds of that situation and determines if you are in danger. If the amygdala senses danger it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
The hippocampus is necessary for cognitive functions such as learning, memory, and regulation of behavior. During the stress response, the brain needs to focus on sensory stimuli and quick problem-solving which causes the hippocampus to alter its function. Chronic stress can cause significant damage to the hippocampus. Studies have shown that in people who suffer from chronic long-term stress the hippocampus will begin to shrink in size.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher level cognitive functions such as planning, critical thinking, and understanding consequences for actions. This area of the brain has a connection with the amygdala during the stress response. When we are stressed the main job of the prefrontal cortex is to help us control our emotions. Once the amygdala senses danger the prefrontal cortex slows the response down so it is not as scary or frustrating. This helps us to make better decisions in times of immediate danger.
Chronic or constant stress over a prolonged period of time can create numerous long-term health problems. If you believe that you are suffering from excessive, chronic stress it is important to find a doctor who can help identify those stressors in order to get your body back to being healthy.
If you have any questions on this, please call the office. God bless you and your family!