When I say stress, you say______?
Job? The current dating scene? Finances?
As a neurologist and mindfulness teacher, stress is how our mind and spirit responds to our external situation.
A term that is often thrown around today is "inflammation." A starting point of inflammation in the body is the stress response being triggered in the brain.
Stress is a biological and psychological response experienced on encountering a threat that we feel we do not have the resources to deal with. A stressor is a stimulus (or threat) that causes stress, e.g. exam, divorce, the death of loved one, moving house, loss of a job.
For two years in a row, the annual stress survey commissioned by the American Psychological Association has found that about 25% of Americans are experiencing high levels of stress (rating their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale). Another 50% report moderate levels of stress (a score of 4 to 7). Perhaps this is not surprising, given continuing economic instability in this country and abroad, concerns about money, work, and the economy rank as the top sources of stress for Americans.
What happens to our brain and body during stress?
Physically, our bodies react to outside stressors. Our bodies judge a situation and decide whether or not it is stressful. This decision is made based on sensory input and processing (i.e. the things we see and hear in the situation) and also on stored memories (i.e. what happened the last time we were in a similar situation).
Let's discuss the neuroscience behind stress
The stress response begins in the brain. When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. Our amygdalas judge the situation and decide whether or not it is stressful by interpreting the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.
The Brain's Command Center
The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles.
After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes.
All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to process fully what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.
What is the HPA Axis?
As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis.
The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the “gas pedal” — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the “brake” — then dampens the stress response.
Adequate and steady blood sugar levels help person to cope with prolonged stressor and helps the body to return to normal. The adrenal cortex releases stress hormones called cortisol. This has a number of functions including releasing stored glucose from the liver (for energy) and controlling swelling after an injury. The immune system is suppressed while this happens.
What symptoms show up when my stress response is activated?
When the inflammation cascade, or the stress response, is triggered the chemical and hormonal pathways that are triggered effect every organ system of our body. Common symptoms include:
1. Increased blood pressure and heart rate
2. Difficulty losing weight
3. Mood and cognitive symptoms like: anxiety, difficulty focusing, poor memory, and depression
4. Hormonal imbalances leading to early menopausal-like symptoms, adrenal fatigue, low testosterone
5. Weak immune system
Is there a cure for my abnormal stress response?
There are several steps to take in recognizing that your mind and body are suffering from the long term and negative consequences of chronic stress. The first step is to talk to a holistic health provider about your symptoms. Ideally a physician specializing in functional medicine or integrative medicine has the tools to help screen for the long term and negative health consequences of stress. Second, you have to understand that you can retrain your brain to respond to external stress in a healthier way. Meditation and other mindfulness based practices are a cornerstone of healing in the mind, body and spirit.
Learn how to conquer stress holistically. Dr. Romie offers free gifts and weekly wisdom bringing together both medicine and mindfulness to regain happiness, health and hope.