How Chronic Stress Affects Your Brain
Stress is something we have all felt at some point or another in our lives. It can be a positive force that motivates us to perform at a high level. However, stress can also be a negative force. If you are exposed to stress inducing stimuli for a long period of time, you could experience chronic stress.
What is Stress?
The human body is extremely responsive to environmental stimuli. Stress is a normal bodily response to external pressures or to a threat. The autonomic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis are the two main bodily systems that help humans respond to stress. When you experience stress, the HPA axis is responsible for the release of cortisol. This is important because cortisol influences many areas of your body. The sympathetic nervous system may also be activated by stress. This system can lead to what psychologists refer to as the "fight or flight response".
Stress is a survival mechanism yet chronic stress can affect your brain size, structure and/or function. It can also affect your mood leading you to feel irritable, angry, restless, overwhelmed, forgetful or isolated. If you are low of energy, experiencing headaches, aches, pains, rapid heartbeat, disrupted sleep, frequent colds, upset stomach, are easily agitated, overwhelmed, avoiding others or feeling "blue", depressed or lonely, you may be experiencing chronic stress.
How Can You Help Yourself?
It has been found that the most effective ways to decrease stress are "positive affect", exercise and meditation. Increasing feelings of happiness, joy, contentment and enthusiasm reduce stress and cardiovascular risks. Making time everyday for enjoyable activities or spending time with people you have a meaningful relationship with, is important to increasing your resilience to stress. Physical activities involving deep breathing increase the production of endorphins, which is your body's natural mood-booster. Activities like yoga and relaxation exercises help reduce stress and boost immune functioning.
In addition to these strategies you can ensure you get the recommended 7 or 8 hours of sleep, reduce caffeine intake, remove technological distractions such as TV or computers from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night.
For more information on the affects of chronic stress on the brain, view the below TedEd video.