Stress and the Brain: Happy Stress Awareness Month!

By Carissa Weber

Photo by burak kostak on Pexels.com

It is no secret everyone has experienced stress in their life. Even if we look at this past year, everyone has been touched with this pandemic we call Covid-19, employment or school concerns, frustration from technology not working when we need it, or not finding toilet paper when you needed it the most. These examples might even bring some level of stress as you read them. You can thank that darn amygdala for increasing that stress level.

Since 1992, mental health professionals (and some members of the general public) have celebrated stress awareness month. After the shit show 2020 was, I think stress awareness month is important than ever to recognize. In this short post, we will go over what the stress response is and ways to help reduce the stress response.

Even though we don’t need to define it, it is still important to understand what stress is. According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, stress is “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Essentially, stress increases tension both physically and emotionally. You might be saying “duh Carissa, I already knew that.” But do you know about the process that creates the chemical imbalance that influences stressed?

Stress is triggered by that darn amygdala when our senses provide information the amygdala is not comfortable with (like seeing how many assignments we have in our email, a passive-aggressive text, or perhaps the smell coming from the garbage?). That message sends the amygdala into high gear. It tells the thalamus to do something, so the thalamus sends a message to the hypothalamus to go through the memory files.

The hypothalamus agrees with our amygdala and sends memories that support the message “this is stressful.” As this message is sent, it releases the neurotransmitters adrenaline and noradrenaline (a.k.a. – the chemicals in the brain responsible for telling us we are needing to escape from the stress) into our thalamus. The thalamus sends this everywhere in our body. You know this is happening as you can feeling the following things happen:

  • Muscle tension (a ton of it usually in our head, neck, and shoulders)
  • Heart rate goes up
  • we breathe faster
  • we are quick to get angry or be irritable
  • Stomach turns to knots
  • Memory goes down the tubes
  • Problems focusing on one (important task)
  • Either we sleep too much or not enough

Any of this sounds familiar? That is your stress response right there. For some people, that stress response can impact their mental health, especially if they are already struggling with anxiety and depression (more on that in next week’s premium post: The Fight-Flight-Freeze Response: The Ultimate Coping Skill). If the stressor keeps hanging on like something sticky on the bottom of a sock, our body will then release a hormone called cortisol. This hormone tells our body “you are going to stay stressed for a while, so don’t get comfortable anytime soon.” The cortisol reinforces that darn amygdala’s message, which releases more adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is the start of the vicious cycle of staying stressed.

Many people know they can change their stress levels. We’ve all heard the, “eat healthy and you’ll feel better” speech. But do you know why those things change our stress levels? Eating healthy foods (like protein-rich foods for example) assists our body by maintaining a healthy blood sugar that adrenaline and noradrenaline throw out of whack. Yes, those shaky, tired and inability to focus feelings are also signs of low (or high) blood sugar. Eating things like tuna, nut butters, or yogurt will help your blood sugar stay stable, and as a bonus, eating protein-rich foods also helps us from overeating (if stress-eating is your game like it is mine). Bigger bonus, protein releases a chemical called tryptophan in our gut. You may recognize this as the chemical associated with falling asleep after eating Thanksgiving dinner but it’s more than just that. While tryptophan can indeed help us sleep, it also helps release the neurotransmitter, serotonin. This neurotransmitter is responsible for helping us feel happy. How cool is it that, you can eat some a couple small protein-rich snacks during the day, satisfy your hunger, maintain healthy blood sugar levels and help release serotonin to your brain?!

Photo by Klaus Nielsen on Pexels.com

Everyone has heard that exercise helps lower stress levels. Many of you might be saying “I know it does, but there isn’t time for it.” Did you know that a simple 20-minute walk will trigger your brain (primarily the hypothalamus), to release the neurotransmitters, endorphins (better known as the feel good, runner’s high chemical). When we start that simple, leisurely stroll, the hypothalamus will release edorphines into the brain, which allows us to start to feel better within 5-7 minutes of starting that walk. That endorphin release can be felt for up to 30 minutes after that walk. Not to mention, walking helps lowers our blood pressure, which is a common physical symptom of adrenaline and noradrenaline. Exercise also helps fight off some of the self-esteem issues we may face (for example, if you’re like me and put on some weight during the “safer at home” order), build a pattern of leisure in our busy life, and improve our physical health.

If you are like me (and every other person out there) the coping skills above are great for stress, but they take practice and time to work. We want something that helps immediately. There is one way to immediately decrease the effects of stress in the body, and that is special mindful breathing exercises. Mindful breathing is so simple to do, and it generally starts working within minutes of practice.

Important Breathing Steps Below

The first thing you have to do, is slow down enough the focus on your breathing! Once you have done that, sit in a comfortable position. Slowly inhale through your nose and into your diaphragm ( to make it simple, breathing so that your belly expands) for 6 seconds. Hold that process in your belly for two seconds. Slowly at exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds, or until you feel like you have no breath left. What is cool about this mindful breathing exercise is that it re-ignites oxygen exchange in our body. Why is that important? When adrenaline and noradrenalin are present, our breathing becomes shallow. This means we hang onto more carbon dioxide in our lungs than we do oxygen. This triggers our hypothalamus to make more adrenaline and noradrenalin, which triggers the release of cortisol. As you know, those stress hormones and neurotransmitters increase a lot of our bodies physical stress responses. By slowing down and actually breathing, we lower our heart rate and our blood pressure. This signals our amygdala to say the stressor has passed and everything can start to return to normal. By practicing mindful breathing for five minutes at a time, you can slowly retrain your amygdala to identify stress, ending it sooner than normal. Remember when our parents would tell us to take a deep breath when we were frustrated? There is science to back up that your parents were right!

To recap this post:

– everyone experiences stress in their life

– the amygdala triggers the hypothalamus to release adrenaline and noradrenaline to start the stress response

– the chemical reaction of stress can trigger physical reactions in our body

– practicing leisure activities, exercise, and eating right will help maintain lower stress levels

– mindful breathing will help immediately decrease the stress response in the body

Thank you for taking time to gain awareness about stress. Although this is something we all lived with, it is something that stays in the back of our brain. Coming up in next week’s premium content post, “Fight-Flight-Freeze Response look: The Ultimate Coping Skill.” We will go more in depth into the role stress plays in our life.

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