Many of us are aware of the impact of stress on the body, and have experienced headaches, upset stomachs, muscle pain, skin irritations, low immunity, and insomnia as a result of stress, but what about the impact of stress on our most precious asset – our brain?
When the brain is under stress a physical response is triggered (the “Fight or Flight Response”) that impacts the way our body physiologically responds, and hinders the brains ability to function normally.
As a part of this response, the hormone ‘Cortisol’ is released to impact the way our body reacts to the stress. This release of cortisol obstructs the ability of the neurotransmitters in our brain to function correctly.
Put simply, it makes it hard for our brains to perform, and stops us from thinking clearly. This explains why we often get confused in a crisis, or why we forget things when we are in a rush or in shock.1
When the brain releases cortisol it causes a chemical reaction that activates the autonomic nervous system’s sympathetic branch to direct glucose (energy) away from the brain towards the muscles that we need to run away from a pending threat (at least that is what your brain thinks!).
Regardless of many years of evolution your brain still cannot tell the difference between the stress of traffic on your daily commute and a pending sabre tooth tiger that is about to attack!
In short, this means that every time you are stressed you literally starve your brain of energy for extended periods.
The release of the cortisol hormone is a natural and much needed reaction to keep us safe, however the problem with this is that cortisol does not leave your system quickly, but instead streams through your system all day long, and this makes it pretty dangerous.
Excess cortisol leads to a host of health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as leaving you feeling exhausted and resulting in poor sleep, short attention span, and memory issues.23
The Great “Brain Drain”!
The constant stress of our day to day lives is slowly impacting our most critical organ. Not only is your brain under pressure and starved of energy, but over time, chronic stress can actually shrink your brain.
That may sound dramatic, but stressful life events have now been shown to harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of grey matter in the brain regions associated with emotions, memory and physiological functions.4
In normal circumstances as we learn new information, we constantly generate new neurons in the hippocampus – the region of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion. However, ongoing stress everyday can halt the production of new neurons and affects the speed of connections in our thought patterns.
Our brain neurons literally stop reproducing. Stress day in and day out is repeatedly creating an energy crisis in your brain and this explains why people express that “my mind is all over the place” or “my mind has gone blank” when they are under pressure or uncomfortable circumstances.
When Is Enough Enough?
The evidence is overwhelming that there is a cumulative buildup of stress hormones in our bodies, due to our stressed minds, and that this is damaging.5
By understanding the impact of stress on the brain we can begin to understand that simply wanting to “be less stressed” is not enough.
Think of a time when you lay in bed willing to go to sleep – simply telling your brain to “go to sleep” does not often work! It is the same with stress, we can not just tell the brain to “not be stressed” because the physical and chemical reaction that is happening has already impacted the brain’s response system.
The good news is however that there is scientific evidence worldwide that has shown that there is a tangible tool that we can use to calm our minds and control the chemicals and hormones released in our body. ‘Breathing‘!.
It sounds simple. We do it everyday. Sadly we do not often do it as well as we should! There is a direct link between breathing and emotions/stress, and by managing our breathing more often we can quite easily calm our brain function, and therefore the cortisol release, without even needing to leave the house.
Numerous scientific studies have now proven that yogic breathing techniques are effective in lowering stress and can control and reduce your cortisol levels.6
These techniques have been seen to directly effect the brain to positively impact concentration levels, memory and focus.
Winning The Battle!
You may not be able to see this “hidden hormone” that is so harmful, but with a little more awareness and some smart breathing, or attending a local yoga class, you have a higher chance of controlling your stress and giving your brain everything it needs to look after your system effectively.7
Given the brain keeps us all alive, and in jobs, its probably worth it! If you are suffering with high daily stress and are feeling the pressure, the simple solution to protecting your brain is, quite simply, to stop worrying, and start breathing!
|↑1||Understanding Chronic Stress, American Psychological Association.|
|↑2||Relieve Adrenal Fatigue By Normalizing High Cortisol Levels, Women’s Health Network.|
|↑3||Stress Fuels Cancer Spread By Triggering Master Gene, Medical News Today.|
|↑4||Chen, Yuncai, Céline M. Dubé, Courtney J. Rice, and Tallie Z. Baram. “Rapid loss of dendritic spines after stress involves derangement of spine dynamics by corticotropin-releasing hormone.” The Journal of Neuroscience 28, no. 11 (2008): 2903-2911.|
|↑5||Rabkin, Judith G., and Elmer L. Struening. “Life events, stress, and illness.” Science 194, no. 4269 (1976): 1013-1020.|
|↑6||Zope, Sameer A., and Rakesh A. Zope. “Sudarshan kriya yoga: Breathing for health.” International journal of yoga 6, no. 1 (2013): 4.|
|↑7||Stress Management, Mayo Clinic.|