Thursday, November 5, 2015
It is generally accepted that our physical well-being is closely linked to our mental wellbeing and in order for one to be perfect, the other must be too. On the other hand, as one suffers so does the other usually. We all know that stress can have a large and negative effect on both our mental and physical health and reducing stress in our lives is greatly advised.
But how exactly does stress affect our minds, bodies and our health? Stress isn’t simply a state of mind. Reacting to stress and stressful situations also causes a physical reaction within our bodies, which alters our hormone levels. This affects the organs within the body and even alters our physical appearance.
Many people will have heard of the “fight or flight” response our brain produces when confronted with stress. This is the response our brains learnt back in prehistoric times when humans needed primeval instincts to survive. The basic principle is to help us recognise a threat and run away or fight it.
In modern times, dangers aren’t always so life threatening, but the physiological response in the body is the same:
When you see or hear a potential threat, the nerves in your body send a signal to the brain to alert it to the problem.
Once the signals reach the amygdala - an almond-shaped gland in the brain that helps to regulate emotions and make decisions – the amygdala sends a further signal to alert the hypothalamus, which is the gland responsible for hormone release.
The fast-acting part of the hypothalamus releases adrenaline throughout the nervous systems. The hypothalamus then begins the process of producing cortisol.
Adrenaline, cortisol and other chemicals enter the bloodstream and travel around the body to the organs and nerves.
The cortisol boosts blood sugar giving the body more energy. The adrenaline makes the heart beat faster and harder, increasing blood and oxygen flow to the rest of the body. The lungs increase in size and the systems that the brain considers useless in a stressful situation are shut down, including the immune system and reproductive system. The body is now primed to fight or flight.
There are two types of stress; acute and chronic. Acute stress is relatively short term while chronic stress is long term caused by events such as heavy traffic, large workloads and caring for sick relatives. Basically, every day stresses which can be impossible to avoid and hard to deal with. The body and brain cannot reset the hormone and inflammatory chemicals to normal levels, keeping the body in a heightened stress condition.
Effects on the heart
As the brain cannot reset the adrenaline levels to normal, this puts the heart under pressure and can lead to coronary problems in the future. The muscles pumping the heart become overworked and damaged. Researchers from Tulane University found that heart attacks were three times more common in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck, likely caused by the sustained amount of stress the residents of New Orleans were under.
During stressful situations, the brain slows down the immune system to concentrate on the systems directly involved in the fight or flight response. If the stressful situation carries on, however, the inflammatory chemicals and the cytokines released begin to damage the immune system, making a person more prone to sickness and illness.
While cortisol is very important in the immediate stress response, if the levels of stress continue, it can in fact cause damage to the body. Cortisol has a negative impact on muscle and bone growth as it inhibits the uptake of amino acids. It also stimulates the liver to produce glucose but inhibits insulin from transporting it to cells, which leaves an excess of glucose in the blood stream. Over time, this causes damage to the blood cells. Recent research suggests that the cortisol produced during stressful events can even have a negative effect on appearance.
Stress is something which often can’t be avoided and it is not healthy to try and avoid it all together either. It is best to learn how to cope under stress so that it doesn’t begin to affect our health. In order for the brain to reset the hormone levels and stop producing inflammatory chemicals, it needs time to relax. Stress therapies help the brain to calm and the body to recover from the heightened response and some, including simple paced breathing can be done anywhere at any time, allowing the brain to relax. Experts advise patients to breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 6 and repeat until the heart rate slows and the body relaxes. Long term stress therapies such as aromatherapy and sound therapy help the body to unwind, the brain to settle and relax so that the stress chemicals stop being released into the body.
Stress is something we all encounter in our lives, but learning how to relax our brain to stop releasing stress hormones is vital for both our mental and physical wellbeing.