We all know or have been told that stress is killing us. However, the questions remain of:
- How is it killing me?
- What can I do about it?
The Amygdala-Hypothalamus-Adrenal Axis is the structure that bridges our brain to our body and directs our “fight or flight” response. It is an essential mechanism that provides us with a massive burst of energy when our life is endangered. Like a turbo in an engine it is very effective but only when used in short controlled bursts (e.g., 10 to 15 minutes). Adrenalin and cortisol (our primary stress hormones) are dumped into our blood stream and trigger a chain reaction of events which provide our muscles, systems, and brain with essential nutrients like sugar and oxygen. These events include:
- Increased heart rate.
- Constricted blood vessels.
- Increased breathing rate.
- Increased sugar levels in the blood.
- And, inhibited digestion (we do not need to be expending energy digesting lunch when fleeing from a bear).
Problems arise when we flood our bodies with adrenalin and cortisol regularly, through stress. Inadvertently, most of us have learned to engage our “fight or flight” response multiple times a day, if not constantly. Without meaning to, we have trained our brains to interpret common frustrations as life-threatening (e.g., traffic, deadlines, worries about the future, expectations, money and work problems, health issues, concern for our kids, etc.). The list is potentially endless.
In essence, chronic stress is marinating our bodies and brains in adrenalin and cortisol almost constantly, and much like an over-used turbo in a car; it is dramatically reducing the life expectancy of our engines/bodies. Long-term exposure to these stress hormones and their physical effects have been found to increase the odds of developing and/or worsening:
- Cardiovascular problems (e.g., blood pressure/hypertension, heart disease, stroke, etc.).
- Neurological problems (e.g., headaches/migraines, sleep disorders, concentration & memory problems, fibromyalgia, etc.).
- Gastrointestinal problems (e.g., ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, etc.).
- Psychological problems (e.g., attitude, mood, aggression, anxiety, depression, etc.).
- Endocrine problems (e.g., diabetes maintenance, etc.).
- Immune system problems (e.g., T-cell development, etc.).
- Chromosome problems (e.g., telomere damage, etc.).
Many of us are aware of some or all of these problems, yet we have been unable to change or reduce the stress in our lives. Part of our difficulty is that chronic stress causes long-term problems and we do not see the direct result of our stress until it has taken a toll on our health. Another large part, is that chronic stress is such an accepted part of our culture that we are unsure what we can or ought to do about it.
There are multiple ways of addressing chronic stress. Each approach provides some benefit, but is not typically sufficient, by itself, to substantially reduce the effects of stress in our life. A comprehensive approach, is the most effective, and includes:
- Environmental Changes – we can alter our environment, relationships, places we visit, and things we do. However, we cannot change every situation nor can we change other people.
- Psychological/Spiritual Changes (gratitude, meditation, counseling, yoga, mindfulness, etc.) – we can alter how we think and feel about our stressors retraining our brain to not interpret frustration as life-threatening, help us make change, and better cope with those things we cannot change. However, just changing our thinking does not completely enhance our physical health.
- Physical Changes (exercise, nutrition, biofeedback, etc.) – we can alter and enhance our physical condition to help ourselves feel better and deal with stress more effectively. However, there are times when our stress has affected our health beyond what basic physical changes can correct.
- Medical Changes (medication, physical therapy, etc.) – we can alter our pre-existing health problems through appropriate medical treatment. However, medical treatment does not often address the nature of the stress.
Despite the “stressful” topic of dealing with chronic stress, there is much to be hopeful about. If you deal with chronic stress, it is possible to change your present course and lead a happier and healthier life. For many of us, we may need some short-term help in getting on the right path, and it is acceptable to seek support.
Daniel Traughber, Ph.D. earned a Master’s Degree in Experimental Psychology with an emphasis in neuroscience. He then went on to earn his Doctoral Degree in Clinical Psychology. He utilizes his neuroscience training in providing evidence-based assessment and treatment for children and adults. Dr. Traughber sees clients at Sanctuary: Neuropsychology & Treatment Consultants. For an appointment, call (208) 417-0623.