Affinity Health Plan

  • How Stress Affects Your Brain and Body

    March 13, 2015

    stressAll of us are stressed at one time or another, but not all stress is bad, like when a person races to get to work on time. Without that pressure we might not do what's necessary to beat the clock. The term for positive stress is eustress. "We wouldn't survive without eustress," said Dr. Elisabeth Hager, a psychiatrist with Beacon Health Options. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who treats people with different kinds of emotional and mental problems.

    "The human body is designed to accept stress," she explained. The problem comes when people are overwhelmed by stress and suffer too much distress.

    What gets people through stressful times are the resources they have at their disposal. "Resources are an important protective feature," Dr. Hager said. They are the brain's ability to manage and cope through difficult times. 

    To understand stress, we have to go back to prehistoric times.  Dr. Hager pointed out that life-threatening danger, such as the type a saber-toothed tiger would present, helped the body develop the "fight or flight" response. That's when the hormones epinephrine and cortisol send chemical signals to the brain that prepare people to face the challenge of either fighting or running for their lives. Depending on the circumstances, this "fight or flight" stress response can be good or bad for the body.

    In the case of the flight response, the blood goes to the skeletal muscles and gives us the ability to run away.

    Conversely, with the fight response, there is "increased vigilance," the doctor said. An example would be when an important test has to be taken. Running away is out of the question. Instead of the blood rushing to the body to prepare for action, the blood flows to the organs, such as the heart and brain. "This response is intended to help people focus and survive," Dr. Hager said.

    How chronic stress develops

    This survival mechanism has its limitations. "If a person undergoes stress for a long, protracted period, now it becomes chronic," Dr. Hager said. A person who is living from paycheck to paycheck or someone with a continually sick child who can't be taken to the hospital because of work demands, are two examples of a chronically stressful situation. "That is when the flow of epinephrine and cortisol increase to the organs. The fight response leaves the person in a heightened state of vigilance, which takes a toll similar to running an endless marathon," she explained. 

    With chronic stress, these hormones are continually being pumped out in a sort of overdrive. Sweat, high blood pressure, agitation, anxiety, and depression is the result. Below are other problems that stress causes:

    • Stress can also contribute to a wide array of physical problems, like high blood pressure, which can lead to stroke and heart attacks. Stress can also bring about ulcers, stomach disorders, and autoimmune disorders.
    • Stress can alter the brain causing subtle but profound results. The brain has myelin, which surrounds the neurons, also called nerve cells, in the white matter of the brain. The white matter makes up a network of fibers that interconnect neurons in areas throughout the brain and creates a communication network. Too much cortisol causes the myelin to thicken and stiffen. "The memory then becomes less sharp. People can forget names and have trouble finding words," Dr. Hager noted.
    • Research also shows that the stress from sexual abuse and neglect can contribute to personality disorders which are maladaptive ways of responding to life situations. "Some people have such intense neediness that they will sacrifice themselves for a relationship. Still others will develop learned helplessness, where they feel that they can't do anything to help themselves. Some people will become risk averse and won't take chances," she said.

    The decision to see a psychiatrist depends on the severity of the distress and a person's ability to deal with it. Such stressors as divorce, being a longtime caregiver, assault, and even the suicide of a friend, are all handled differently by each individual. "All human beings have a stress response," the doctor indicated. "Some respond more robustly. Some can be temperamental, or high strung, while others are laid back," she added.

    When the stress makes a person physically ill, with high blood pressure, stomach problems or fluttering in the chest, for example, seeing a psychiatrist can help. Smoking, drinking, using drugs, sleeping poorly or having nightmares, while in or after a stressful situation, are reasons to see a psychiatrist.

    Treatment for the stress varies, depending on how badly it has affected a person:

    • Talk therapy, which allows a person to release pent up feelings, can reduce negative thoughts and goes a long way in relieving stress.
    • Drug therapy can be used along with talk therapy to reduce a person's stress level.

    How to control stress 

    Managing stress begins very early in life. "Our experience as a child can determine how we handle stress," said Dr. Hager, cautioning that "this is being said not to blame the parents." She went on to say that if a child is raised in a stable environment, with food on the table, where there is a lot of touching, holding, and affection, those children tend to have lower stress responses. Such calming, positive atmospheres teach children at an early age how to lower stress by themselves. It is a long-term resource that stabilizes a person during stressful times.

    Anyone can develop their own resources for handling stress. Therefore, if a person did not grow up in a secure environment, all is not lost. "We can all take action to improve our situations," Dr. Hager said, adding, "There are lots of things a person can do." Here are some tips to follow:

    • Connect with your friends and family. Feeling less alone reduces stress. Reaching out to friends allows people to share the emotionally stressful load and gain perspective on their situation.
    • Try "mindful meditation." Be aware of yourself and your surroundings, and remind yourself that you are safe and coping with the situation.
    • Take a few deep breaths. This activates the vagal nerves, which in turn lowers blood pressure and respiratory rate. It can have a calming effect.
    • Exercise.  Walking or jogging around the neighborhood is free. Swimming, basketball, or kick boxing can bring a sense of empowerment and will reduce stress. "Exercise releases the brain's internal opioids that make people feel better," said Dr. Hager.  "Just 20 to 30 minutes a day could keep a person calm."
    • Remember some stress is not bad. Getting through a stressful event can develop a person's resiliency and sense of mastery.

    Of equal importance, while going through a stressful situation, Dr. Hager says to stay optimistic. "You will find a way. Stay positive and don't go through it alone. Find a friend."

    Dr. Elisabeth Hager is psychiatrist who works for Beacon Health Options. She has a private practice and specializes in geriatric psychiatry and addiction medicine. Beacon Health Options provides services for the members of Affinity Health Plan.

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