The Secret Link Between Stress and Your Body; Rewiring Your Brain Part Two

Welcome to the second in a three-part series on Rewiring the Brain, where we’ll be discussing the link between stress, especially chronic stress on your body and brain, and how it impacts your brain’s ability to rewire itself.

If you ever feel overwhelmed, anxious, or stressed out, you’re not alone. Stress is a normal part of life, and it’s something that everyone experiences at some point. But chronic stress can have a significant impact on our brain and our overall health. Stress can undermine our ability to think clearly and make necessary changes. And while studies have shown that the brain has a remarkable ability to change and rewire itself, through neuroplasticity, unfortunately, chronic stress undermines the brain’s ability to rewire itself – unless you know how. 

Stress and the Amygdala

Let’s start with a short definition of stress and what happens when stress gets out of control in our brains and bodies. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It can come from any event or thought that makes you feel frustrated, angry, or nervous. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand. In short bursts, stress can be positive, such as when it helps you avoid danger or meet a deadline”. However, when stress persists over time, it can have a seriously negative impact on both our physical and mental health.

When we become stressed, the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions, can become “hijacked”. When this hijack happens, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released, which activate the “fight or flight” response. This response can be helpful when you’re in immediate danger. But, when activated repeatedly or for prolonged periods, it can have detrimental effects on the body and mind. In the short term, stress can lead to impulsive or irrational behavior. However, in the long term, chronic stress also causes changes in the brain. These changes may impact your mood, memory, and decision-making abilities. 

Additionally, the impact of chronic stress is associated with a wide range of negative health outcomes including:

  • Impaired immune function
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Memory and cognitive problems
  • Mood disorders
  • Digestive problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Weight gain

Chronic Stress and Neuroplasticity

So, now that we have a better understanding of how stress impacts the body and brain physically and chemically, let’s explore the impact of stress on rewiring the brain. One of the most significant impacts of chronic stress is how it impacts the brain’s ability to rewire itself through neuroplasticity. 

When stress triggers the hormone Cortisol it interferes with the growth and maintenance of neural connections. This happens in the hippocampus – a region of the brain that is important for memory and learning. This means that chronic stress can impair our ability to learn new things, remember important information, and adapt to new situations. Ultimately, the long-term effect of chronic stress results in rewiring the brain in a negative and detrimental way, making it more difficult to manage stress in the future.

Additionally, chronic stress can have a negative impact on the prefrontal cortex – a region of the brain that is involved in decision-making, impulse control, and emotion regulation. Studies have shown that chronic stress can lead to a reduction in the size and activity of the prefrontal cortex, which can contribute to a wide range of negative outcomes, including poor decision-making, impulsivity, and the inability to regulate or control your emotions.

Real Versus Imagined Stress

As we’ve seen, chronic stress impacts not only our body but also our brain, making it increasingly more difficult to learn, manage our emotions and behavior, and even manage our stress in the long term. In the next section, we’ll explore our brain’s ability to distinguish between different types of stress. 

Interestingly, while NOT all stress is equal, our brains cannot distinguish the difference. That’s right, our brains often react to an imagined threat in the same way it does an actual threat. When confronted by a threat, real or imagined, the amygdala releases hormones flooding your body, causing the same rush of emotion in either circumstance. Your heart rate increases, your palms may get sweaty, and your thoughts may start reeling out of control. On the one hand, “real” stress is caused by an external threat, such as a car accident or meeting a tight deadline imposed by your boss (or being attacked by a bear, though not as common). Imagined stress, on the other hand, is caused by our thoughts and perceptions, such as worrying about the future or ruminating on past mistakes.

And, while real and imagined stress may be unavoidable, the impact of stress on our bodies and brains CAN be managed.

Coping with Stress More Effectively

Right now, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed by what you’ve learned about the negative impacts of stress on the body and brain. But it’s not all doom and gloom. In this next section, we will explore some of the techniques you can learn to cope with and manage stress more effectively and live a healthier and happy life. 

Managing Overthinking

Overthinking can lead to anxiety and stress and can make it difficult to find solutions to problems. When you find yourself ruminating on a problem, try to shift your focus to something more positive. One way to do this is to practice gratitude. Take time each day to reflect on the things in your life that you appreciate and that bring you joy. This can help shift your perspective and reduce stress. Another way to combat overthinking is to practice self-compassion. Remember that nobody is perfect, and it’s okay to make mistakes. When you find yourself being self-critical, try to treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend.

Practicing Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being fully present in the moment, without judgment. By practicing mindfulness, you can reduce the impact of stress on your body and mind. One way to practice mindfulness is through meditation. Meditation involves focusing your attention on your breath or a mantra and letting go of distracting thoughts. By practicing meditation regularly, you can improve your ability to stay focused and present in the moment, even in stressful situations. A couple of helpful apps are CALM, Headspace, and Insight Timer.

Another way to practice mindfulness is through everyday activities like walking or washing dishes. Simply focus your attention on the physical sensations of the activity, without judgment or distraction. This can help you feel more grounded and present in the moment, reducing the impact of stress on your body and mind.

Letting Go of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is the need to make things “right”, or your need to control everything. Perfectionism can be a major source of stress. Remember that nobody is perfect, and it’s okay to make mistakes. Also recognize that not only is it unrealistic and unhealthy, but it’s also impossible to control everything. You are not responsible for everything. It is wise to consider in which areas you could let others help you. Recognize that they will NOT do things the same way you do, and you need to learn to accept this, to reduce your stress.

Increasing Self-Awareness

It’s important to be aware of the situations and triggers that cause you stress. This could be anything from dealing with a difficult situation or meeting a tight deadline at work, to having a difficult conversation with a loved one. By recognizing these stressors, you can begin to take steps to manage them. One way to increase your awareness of your stress triggers is to keep a stress journal. This involves tracking your stress levels throughout the day and noting the situations and emotions that trigger stress. By tracking your stress in this way, you can begin to identify patterns and develop strategies for managing stress.

Taking Care of Your Body

Engage in regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. Taking care of your physical health can help you feel more resilient and better able to cope with stress. Exercise is particularly effective in reducing stress, as it releases endorphins – the body’s natural “feel-good” chemicals. Even a short walk or stretching can help reduce stress and boost your mood.

Practicing Gratitude

Focusing on what you’re grateful for can help shift your perspective and reduce stress. Take time each day to reflect on the things in your life that you appreciate and that bring you joy. Start with small things, such as a beautiful sunset or a flower in your garden. As you build the muscles of practicing gratitude, it will become easier to notice the things you appreciate, building your gratitude “muscle”.

Seeking Support

Don’t be afraid to reach out for support when you’re feeling stressed. Talking to a friend or loved one can help you feel heard and understood. You may also consider seeking the help of a therapist or counselor, who can provide you with additional tools and resources to manage stress. Therapy can be especially helpful if you’re dealing with trauma or unresolved emotional issues. A therapist can help you process difficult emotions and develop coping strategies to manage stress in a healthy way.

Stress and Relationships

And lastly, our discussion would not be complete without considering the impact of stress on our relationships. Stressful relationships can cause an amygdala hijack just like other stressors. Remember, when we’re stressed, our amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for processing emotions – can become overactive, leading to irrational and emotional responses. This can make it difficult to communicate effectively with our loved ones, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and even relationship breakdowns.

To avoid an amygdala hijack in our relationships, it’s important to practice the same tools and strategies we’ve discussed throughout this video. This includes mindfulness, self-compassion, and seeking support when we need it.

It’s also important to remember that everyone experiences stress differently. If your partner or loved one is going through a stressful time, try to be understanding and supportive. Offer a listening ear and try to avoid being judgmental or dismissive.

If you’re experiencing stress in your relationships, and have tried other methods to resolve the stress, it may be helpful to seek the help of a therapist, or a relationship or mindset coach. A trained professional can help you develop effective communication skills and strategies for managing stress in your relationship.

Stress and Your Body

Stress is a natural part of life, and it’s impossible to eliminate it entirely. But with the right tools and strategies, you can manage stress in a healthy way and prevent it from taking over your life. Stress is a complex issue that affects us all in different ways. By understanding the impact of stress on the brain and body, we can begin to take steps to manage stress in a healthier way. This includes practicing awareness, mindfulness, and self-care, as well as seeking support when we need it.

Remember, you are not alone in your struggles with stress. With the right tools and support, you can learn to manage stress effectively and live a more fulfilling and balanced life. 

Thank you for joining me for the second part of this series on Rewiring Your Brain. If you struggle with thought patterns you’d like to change, don’t wait any longer, take the first step and schedule an introductory session personally with me to start your journey toward a less stressful life.

Kristin Clark is a certified Axiogenics Coach and co-author of Living a Richer Life; It’s All in Your Head. Kristin has coached hundreds of people from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs, industries, and professions. She teaches Valuegenic Self-Leadership, a powerful development program engaging, empowering, and igniting individuals’ and leaders’ potential to improve their performance, relationships, and quality of life. |