This Is Your Brain On Stress

If you are a 80's or 90's kid like me, you remember those horribly cheesy commercials warning "this is your brain on drugs" with a smashed frying egg. Oh, nostalgia. As I grow older and reflect back on the things I learned as a child, I realize that while we learned a lot about what not to do with our bodies, we never quite learned what not to do with our minds. 

We do not learn enough about what we should do more of so I want to aim to provide guidance as well as some things to shy away from. 

Stress is not pleasant, but many would say it is inevitable. It is part of living life, becoming successful, and growing. However, the amount of stress the average person has to bear is incredible and more than moderate.

Intense and persistent stress wreaks havoc on our body, our interpersonal lives, and our connection to ourselves. It makes the days run together, it makes us short-tempered and irritable. In short: stress sucks.

Here is what our brain sees when we are in a stress response: fight or flight. You have heard about it before. It is our natural response to kick it in gear or retreat to safety. 

Stress expert Christopher Bergland writes "The ‘stress hormone’ cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight." 

Harvard Medical School breaks it down in their article 'Understanding the Stress Response' explaining how our brain processes stress chemically. Here's my in-real-words version:

  • Our brain receives a signal to be stressed out
  • Adrenalin begins pumping into our blood system 
  • All the "oh shit" bodily responses begin occurring: heart beating faster, breathing increases, brain and body are on high alert

 The problem with this response is that when stress is chronic, our brain never has the opportunity to recover. "If the brain continues...the body stays revved up and on high alert."

In simple terms, the way I understand this is that chronic stress means our brain gets trained to expect more stress. 

So what do we do about this? We cannot run away from stress. We live busy, full lives, and want to push ourselves to do more and more each day. 

According to numerous studies, mindfulness meditation and being active have profound impacts on rewiring our stress response. This, among other reasons, is one of the major reasons that I am such a big advocate for movement and mindfulness.

In addition to mindfulness and being active, we can also re-evaluate our relationship with stress in order to change how our bodies respond. Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal suggests that we can change the conversation with ourselves on how we perceive this stress in order to influence how our brain responds to stressful stimulus.

If all that mindfulness and self-talk stuff sounds too much for you, I have a simpler way to begin.

Slowing down a little can be incredibly powerful for the state of our stress levels. Constantly going without any intention of stopping leaves our mind little time to recover. So if you are not keen on meditating, make the adjustments that feel right for you. You can check out my recent blog about slowing down here

Take a walk at some point during the day, even if it is for five minutes. Slow down a little more, even if it is just for a fraction of your afternoon. Be kind to yourself, even if it is a work in progress. I promise, your brain will thank you!