Updated: Nov 15, 2021
Our brains are hard-wired to protect us from danger and life-threatening predators. Even though stress was a vital part of humankind survival millions of years ago, such risks barely exist nowadays. However, in our modern society, non-life-threatening events can trigger our fight-or-flight response. Those stressors may manifest in the form of the countless emails we receive, a demanding boss or annoying colleagues, work deadlines, difficulties paying the bills, juggling with work and family life, family difficulties and so on… Our bodies, identifying these pain points as threats, constantly feel under attack, thus, altering our optimal mind-body functioning. Let’s discover what stress can do to the body and mind- based on medical research- and how to reduce them.
Stress effects on Cognition
Cognition is a critical function of the brain, through which we receive and perceive stimuli. It is our interpretation of the world and includes learning, decision making, the focus of attention, and judgment. Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), also known as the fight or flight response, which triggers the hormonal activity in the body through interaction between the nervous system and endocrine system (HPA axis). The amygdala hijack takes control over the prefrontal cortex during a fight-or-flight response, where consciousness and reasoning capabilities initiate.
For those reasons, impacts of stress on cognition result in poor concentration, confusion, distractibility, narrowing of attention, poor memory, difficulty in reasoning, loss of objectivity and poor decision making, to name a few. While experiencing intensive stress, some may suffer from headaches, confusion or brain fog. Thus, any step to reducing stress leads to increased cognition.
Stress effects on the Immune System and the Endocrine System
Chronic stress and anxiety dramatically weaken the immune system, leading to more frequent illnesses. But how does it work? During stress, adrenaline and cortisol are released through the HPA axis. While adrenaline increases heart racing and blood pressure, cortisol increases the glucose level in the bloodstream to give us the necessary energy to fight back a predator or escape from a dangerous situation. Cortisol suppresses nonessential functions during a fight-or-flight response, such as digestive processes (including metabolisation) and growth processes.
Other hormones are affected during stress episodes. Melatonin, for instance, regulates our waking and sleeping cycles- also known as the circadian rhythm. Melatonin and cortisol work together; in other words, melatonin should be high at night, while cortisol should be low and otherwise. Sleep is naturally affected when either is out of balance. Note that stress and sleep have a two-way relationship. Sleep is negatively affected by stress on the one side, and stress is amplified by sleep deprivation on the other side.
In addition, human growth hormone secretion (HGH)- primarily released during deep sleep cycles- can stop during acute exposure to stress. HGH regulates the fat, muscles, bones and tissues in our bodies. However, as stress can negatively impair sleep cycles, HGH release may stop.
Finally, stress can decrease natural killer cells (NK) activity responsible for limiting tumours and infection spread. Once a fight-or-flight response passes, adrenaline and cortisol levels drop back to normal. The nervous and endocrine systems return to homeostasis (a healthy biological state). However, when stressors are omnipresent in our daily life, we constantly feel under attack. The fight-or-flight response remains switched on, disrupting most of the body’s processes. Health conditions may arise, such as anxiety disorders, depression, digestive problems, sleep problems and weight gain. To overcome insomnia naturally, visit our services.
Stress effects on the Gastrointestinal System
Stress also impacts nutrition and the gastrointestinal (GI) system. Firstly, stress can affect appetite as nutrition can affect the response to stress as there is a two-way interaction between stress and nutrition. Secondly, stress damages the function of the GI tract. Studies revealed that stress impacts the absorption process and intestinal permeability. Stress also intensifies the response to inflammation and may trigger previous inflammation. Many inflammatory diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and Chron’s disease, are highly related to stress. It has been suggested that stress experienced during childhood may lead to such conditions in adulthood.
How to reduce stress?
When not knowing how to deal with these arousals, some may engage with toxic coping mechanisms- which really are the result of non-coping skills. Luckily, there are many activities to engage with while aiming to reduce stress. Healthy habits leave us with a sense of self-satisfaction. As a result, motivation increases. Additionally, the brain likes coherence. Meaning that by implementing short healthy habits at the beginning of your day, it will be easier for you to build upon and maintain supportive habits throughout the day. As a result, you will strengthen your resiliency one day at a time. Below are a few selections of lifestyle activities easing stress management for better peace of mind.
1. Eating a healthy diet
3. Walking in nature
4. Mind-body practices (Yoga, Tai chi, Qigong)
5. Focus-based activities (Breathing techniques, meditation, repeating a mantra)
6. Getting enough restful sleep
7. Keeping a gratitude journal
8. Making time to do things that bring you joy
9. Inviting laugh and playfulness into your life
10. Connecting with loved-ones
If you currently suffer from stress, please do seek assistance. It is not worth putting your health at risk. If you would like a natural way out of stress and anxiety, visit our services.
Sync Your Minds content is for informational and educational purposes only. Our website is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment; rather, it is a complement to it.
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