Stress is problematic for many reasons. It not only is a highly unpleasant feeling, it has innumerable side effects on the mind and body. We all need to learn how to tackle stress, in order to keep our bodies functioning in good health and continue to head toward a healthy future.
Stress Can Restructure Your Brain
Stress isn’t always negative. It can be helpful when you need it, say when you are competing in a sports event or need to perform on stage. It can provide you with a burst of energy that is required in certain areas. However the negative effects of stress, over time, can begin to restructure your brain.
When stress affects your brain, the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis is activated.
The hypothalamus is a central part of the brain, and it releases a compound which travels to the pituitary gland. This then releases the hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotrophic) which is then released into the blood stream. In turn this releases the stress hormone Cortisol. When the released Cortisol occurs it sets the body in a state of anticipation, ready for action. When the body is dealing with the release of Cortisol long term, however, it has a negative effect on the brain. The brain doesn’t cope well with the long term association of adrenaline, so it begins to have negative effects on the body.
Cortisol is responsible for the availability to our energy supply (carbs, fats and most importantly – sugars) as these energies are needed when responding to stressful situations. However after a prolonged state of stress occurs, muscle starts to break down and we are dealing with a decreased response and we begin to see a decline int he immune system. There are also a whole set of negative effects within the brain.
Stress Can Make Your Brain Smaller
Continuous stress and rising Cortisol levels means that brain signals associated with learning, memory and controlling stress being to decline. This same area of the brain that control these attributes (the Hippocampus) also begins to restrict activity of the HPA axis and when this deteriorates or becomes weak, we are less able to control our stress levels.
Cortisol also makes your brain smaller! Syanptic connections disappear when there is too much Cortisol and the front part of the brain that determines judgement, social behavior, and decision making, also shrinks. Depression is a risk when this happens, because less brain cells are being developed, and we are stuck in a negative cycle within the brain.
Relieving Stress: Exercise and Meditation Can Reverse the Above Mentioned Effects
It’s not all bad news! The most powerful stress busters and ways to relieve feelings of tension and stress are exercise and meditation. Mindfulness meditation is extremely helpful. This is when we mindfully stay in the present moment and are aware of our present surroundings. We might name things that in front of us, or use our senses to feel what is happening in the moment. This keeps our brains from focusing too much on the past or the future. In other words, on things that have already happened (and can’t be changed) or things that are yet to happen (so don’t need worrying about yet.)
When you exercise and meditate, you actually reverse the above mentioned effects. Your brain will actually grow in size as your stress levels decrease. So when you are feeling like you aren’t in control of your stress, go for a run, and follow it with some meditation. Prevention is key. Bring those stress levels down as it is the kindest thing you can do for your body and your mind.