Stress is an unpleasant component of life. We all experience it from time to time, and we all try to come up with ways to cope – some with more success than others. So what exactly is stress doing to your body and your mind? And how can you learn to better cope?
Everyone experiences stress in some shape or form. We all recognize when we’re in stressful situations – our heads don’t work, and we know we’re expending unnecessary energy.
Imagine you’re in a dark jungle and a jaguar is chasing after you. You stop still; blood pounding in your ears and your lungs almost exploding.
At times like this, you want every muscle in your body to be working to its peak ability, and your brain to be super-alert.
Evolution has given you this stress response.
But to have it all the time? That’s where it gets dangerous.
There are three parts of your body responsible for the stress response – your hypothalamus and pituitary, both located in your brain and your adrenal glands, situated on top of your kidneys.
What happens in your brain?
Once your brain senses there’s danger, it signals your adrenal glands to release the hormone adrenaline. Once transmitted, adrenaline raises blood sugar levels, blood pressure and circulating fats; increasing the likelihood you will have a heart attack or stroke.
Raised cortisol levels can kill brain cells in the hippocampus . A series of studies conducted in Israel, Germany, USA, China, and Italy saw rats daily injected with cortisol for several weeks lead to brain cells dying off. Stressing the rats each day for the same amount of time lead to the same results. The rats were left feeling depressed, anxious, fearful, immature, needy, and unable to learn new behaviors.
Chronic stress takes the same toll on the brain in other ways too.
Stress can, literally, excite the brain cells to death. Cortisone released by the stressed out brain travels and binds to the neurons, leading to a cascade of reaction where the neurons admit more calcium through channels in their membrane.
In the short-term, cortisol helps the brain to optimally cope with life-threatening situations. Yet if neurons become overloaded with calcium, they fire too frequently and die from overexcitement.
Chronic stress has also been linked to depression . A common feature of depression is the excessive release of cortisol in the blood. Some neuroscientists and psychiatrists now suggest that excessive release of cortisol can change the levels of serotonin and other neurotransmitters; a secondary response to excessive stress.
What can be done
1. Try breathing deeply for five minutes.
Sit up straight and close your eyes, slowly inhaling through your nose and feel the breath expand your abdomen. Reverse the process as you exhale through your mouth. Deep breathing counters the effects of prolonged stress; slowing down the heart rate and lowering blood pressure .
2. Get moving.
You don’t have to run to get a runner’s high. All forms of exercise, whether it be yoga, walking or dancing, can ease depression and anxiety by stimulating the brain to release feel-good hormones and giving your body the chance to physically deal with stress.
3. Reach out to your friends and family.
Your social network is your best resource for handling stress. Studies show that people with poor social support are less resistant to stress and more likely to have a mental illness . Just having a coffee and telling someone who knows you well what is making you so stressed helps you relieve the pressure and work out a solution; to get you moving in the right direction and overcoming the adverse effects of prolonged stress.
To Living a Life Free of Chronic Stress
We all get stressed, and sometimes stress can be useful; motivating us to work hard while under the pump and survive, but other times it is unnecessary and we need to consciously work to be resistant to the effects. Make your life more stress-free today by trying out these three tips.
 Takuaz, D, Loya, A., Gersner, R., Haramati, S., Chen, A. & Zangen, A. (2011) Resilience to chronic stress is mediated by hippocampal brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(12). 4475-4483.
 Blackburn-Monro, G & Blackburn-Munro, R.E. (2001) Chronic pain, chronic stress and depression: coincidence or consequence? Journal of Neuroendocrinology, 13, 1009-1023.
 Mori, H., Yamamoto, H., Kuwashima, M., Saito, S., Ukai, H., Hirao, K., Yamauchi, M. & Umemura, S. (2005) How does deep breathing affect office blood pressure and pulse rate? Hypertension Respiration, 6, 499-504.
 Ozbay, F., Johnson, D., Dimoulas, E., Morgan, C., Charney, D. & Southwick, S. (2007) Social support and resilience to stress. Psychiatry, 5, 35-40.