When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.–Winston Churchill
The human brain has been described as the most complex object in the universe. And, because we all have unique experiences from which we develop our personalities, the complexity of human emotional life is immense
While we commonly think of stress as too much mental or emotional pressure, physiological or physical stress is also important. Stress can affect how you feel, think and behave as well as how your body works because your mind and body constantly interact.
Recent research suggests our genes are closely linked to our personalities and may, therefore, dictate how susceptible we are to stress.
We all experience stress—it’s a hard-wired response that can be advantageous in the short term when we’re working to a deadline or having a particularly busy day. In the long term, stress has negative effects on both the mind and body
Related Article: Mens Health Forum
During a stressful situation, your adrenal glands release hormones called cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and raises blood pressure.
Meanwhile, cortisol causes the inner lining of blood vessels to function irregularly. Together, these changes increase the chances of heart attack or stroke. (High levels of cortisol are also connected to appetite fluctuation and weight gain.)
The brain communicates stress to the enteric nervous system (ENS), a complex system of nerves found in the lining of the gut—the ENS is sometimes called the “second brain.” This brain-gut connection can disturb how food moves through the gut, increasing sensitivity to acid (hello, heartburn). Stress can potentially cause digestive problems by changing the composition and function of your gut bacteria.
A little too much to digest?
The best way to kerb stress is to find a different way to respond to it—not as a threat, but as “challenges you can control and master.” And what better way to do that than through meditation? If you don’t have five or ten minutes right now to meditate, you might want to check out “Stress is Optional
So what is Stress?
We are all familiar with the word “stress”. Stress is when you are worried about getting laid off your job, or worried about having enough money to pay your bills, or worried about your mother when the doctor says she may need an operation. In fact, to most of us, stress is synonymous with worry. If it is something that makes you worry, then it is stress.
Your body, however, has a much broader definition of stress. To your body, stress is synonymous with change. Anything that causes a change in your life causes stress. It doesn’t matter if it is a “good” change or a “bad” change, they are both stresses. When you find your dream apartment and get ready to move, that is stress. If you break your leg, that is stress. Good or bad, if it is a change in your life, it is stress as far as your body is concerned.
Even imagined change is stressful. (Imagining changes is what we call “worrying”.) If you fear that you will not have enough money to pay your rent, which is stress. If you worry that you may get fired, that is stress. If you think that you may receive a promotion at work that is also stress (even though this would be a good change). Whether the event is good or bad, imagining changes in your life is stressful.
The physiological effects of stress
Within your central nervous system (your brain and spine) you have the autonomic system. This controls all of the processes that you do without thinking, such as breathing, digestion and your heart beat.
Within the autonomic system, there are two systems of interest, which work in tandem with each other. These are the sympathetic system, known as the ‘fight or flight’ system, and the parasympathetic system, or the ‘rest and digest’ system.
The sympathetic system is responsible for increasing heart rate, increasing blood pressure and increasing blood sugar to help you to perform when stress hits. When you are stressed, this system triggers these necessary responses, and the function of your rest and digest system is reduced. The parasympathetic system is responsible for suppressing heart rate and bringing you back down to homoeostasis.
Another hormone released when we are stressed is cortisol. Cortisol is an energising hormone which increases the level of blood sugar. This is great in the short term to provide energy to react quickly, but in the long term, it can be bad for the immune system (as DHEA, which is also released by the adrenal glands and supports our immune system, can’t be released when cortisol is released).
Excess release of cortisol over a long period of time can also lead to increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. When blood sugar levels are raised it can lead to inflammation of artery walls. This damage can cause the immune system to respond, leading to a build-up of fatty deposits which can block the arteries. If some of this build up breaks away and is released into the bloodstream then it can block smaller arteries that lead into your brain or heart.
Stress can also limit our ability to think clearly. When we are stressed our ‘amygdala’ labels information coming into the brain as threatening and at the same time, limits activity in the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think strategically. This reduces our ability to make decisions, be sociable and take on new ideas and information. As a result, you may act in a way that you might later regret.
How stress affects your brain?
Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus (the brain area responsible for your episodic memory) and there is robust evidence that chronic stress causes premature brain ageing. Without cortisol you would die – but too much of it is not a good thing.
When life is smooth, your brain is able to produce enough “calming chemicals,” such as serotonin, to keep up with normal levels of stress, demands, and expectations.
But when too much stress is placed on the brain, it begins to fall behind in its ability to cope. As the stress continues, some of the calming chemicals may begin to fail. Important nerve centres then become distressed. You enter a state of brain chemical imbalance known as — Overstress.
Overstress makes people feel terrible. With stress overwhelming the brain, a person feels “overwhelmed” by life.
People complain about being tired, unable to fall asleep or to obtain a restful night’s sleep. They have plagues of aches and pains, lack of energy, lack of enjoyment of life. They feel depressed, anxious, or just unable to cope with life.
How to deal with stress
There are three broad methods you can follow to treat stress, they include
Self-help for treating stress
Exercise has been proven to have a beneficial effect on a person’s mental and physical state. For many people exercise is an extremely effective stress buster.
Learn to Delegate
Try to delegate your responsibilities at work, or share them. If you make yourself indispensable the likelihood of your feeling highly stressed is significantly greater.
Don’t say yes to everything. If you can’t do something well, or if something is not your responsibility, try to seek ways of not agreeing to do them.
Alcohol and Drugs.
Will not help you manage your stress better. Either stop consuming them completely, cut down.
If your consumption of coffee and other drinks which contain caffeine is high, cut down.
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. Make sure you have a healthy and balanced diet.
Make sure you set aside sometime each day just for yourself. Use that time to organise your life, relax, and pursue your own interests.
There are some effective breathing techniques which will slow down your system and help you relax.
Talk to you family, friends, work colleagues and your boss. Express your thoughts and worries.
Seek professional help.
If the stress is affecting the way you function; go and see your doctor. Heightened stress for prolonged periods can be bad for your physical and mental health.
Meditation, massage, or yoga have been known to greatly help people with stress.
Stress management techniques
Stress management can help you to either remove or change the source of stress, alter the way you view a stressful event, lower the impact that stress might have on your body, and teach you alternative ways of coping. Stress management therapy will have the objective of pursuing one or more of these approaches.
Stress management techniques can be gained if you read self-help books, or attend a stress management course. You can also seek the help of a counsellor or psychotherapist for personal development or therapy sessions.
Many therapies which help you relax, such as aromatherapy, or reflexology, may have a beneficial effect.
Doctors will not usually prescribe medications for coping with stress, unless the patient has an underlying illness, such as depression or some type of anxiety. If that is the case, the doctor is actually treating a mental illness. In such cases, an antidepressant may be prescribed. Bear in mind that there is a risk that all the medication will do is mask the stress, rather than help you deal and cope with it.