There are a variety of factors which we encounter every day that can trigger stress. From waking up late, to work deadlines or unpaid bills, stress is an ever present aspect of our lives. But while it might be impossible to altogether avoid stress, a healthier body and mind is better assured if we actually learn how to manage stress.
Our body responds to stressful situations by releasing certain chemicals in our brain that enable us to respond faster in such situations – It’s a self-preservation reflex. Also, research actually indicates that brief periods of stress are actually healthy to some degree. On the other hand, a life that is constantly plagued by stress can be injurious to not just your physical health but also your mental health.
Constant stress is injurious to your mental health because it increases the risk of you suffering from mental diseases. Recent research has revealed that the cellular and molecular structure of the human brain is actually significantly different between people suffering from anxiety disorders and those that aren’t.
What Exactly is Stress?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress can be defined as the brain responding to any demand. Going by that definition, it’s safe to assume stress isn’t all bad – After all, it is simply a response to stimuli. What will eventually determine if stress is harming your brain is its duration, intensity, and how you manage it.
When stress is recurring and its episodes are intense and last for long periods, it can be categorised as “chronic” or “toxic” stress. Chronis stress unlike lesser forms of stress can cause significant harm that impacts the functioning of your brain as well as your body.
Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain
Continued stress can lead to a continued release of cortisol in the brain. When cortisol accumulates in the brain it can lead to long-term negative effects which in turn lead to health problems.
When released in moderation, the presence of the cortisol hormone in your brain is normal and is in no way injurious to your health. Cortisol serves multiple functions such as regulating blood sugar level in cells, restoring the body after a stressful situation, and boosting the hippocampus’ activity.
However, when cortisol is excessively present, it can deteriorate the brain’s ability to function properly. Various studies have shown that chronic stress and high cortisol levels can impair brain function by disrupting synapse regulation which will lead to loss of sociability. Other effects include killing off brain cells and causing brain size to reduce. The shrinking of the brain is evident in the reduction of the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that handles learning and memory.
Effects of Stress on the Body
The effects of chronic stress not only impairs cognitive function but also negatively impacts your physiology. Chronic stress can lead to health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heightened risk of heart disease. It can also impair the functioning of your excretory, digestive, and reproductive systems.
How is Anxiety different from Stress?
Anxiety can be described as a sense of apprehension or fear. It biologically increases your state of awareness so you are better able to notice any impending danger or threats and thus avoid it. But being in a constant state of excessive anxiety is dangerous and very unhealthy. This is because the body’s flight or fight response is never actually turned off and this leaves you in a state of constant physical and emotional agitation. Being in such a condition will considerably wear out your brain as well as your body.
Anxiety might seem identical to stress but there are distinctions. Anxiety can be born of stress but symptoms of stress can manifest in a variety of ways. When stressed, you can feel angry, sad, worried, or anxious. But when anxious, the chief emotion is fear/apprehension.
What happens in the Brain when you are Anxious?
Anxiety is one of the ways your body responds to stress. When it occurs, your system is flooded with cortisol and norepinephrine. Both chemicals give you heightened reflexes, perception, and speed to enable you escape danger. These hormones also lead to a spike in your heart rate so that more blood is delivered to muscles, and more air gets to your lungs. This effect is supposed to turn off and reverse itself once the threat passes. But if you are constantly suffering from toxic stress or anxiety, this will leave your body and mind perpetually agitated and this is very unhealthy.
Neuroplasticity and the Brain
Neuroplasticity or plasticity refers to the re-forming of neural pathways in the brain. These pathways can suffer serious damage if constantly exposed to stress. Fortunately, the brain can recover from such negative effects.
Young adults are better able to recover from stress. As you age, it will become more difficult to create or regain new neural pathways that have been damaged due to excessive stress or anxiety. Fortunately for aging adults, there’s still hope as they can partake in certain activities to help them combat stress and its wear-and-tear on their brain. Such activities include regular exercising, keeping mentally busy, socializing, finding a new hobby, music, and meditation, all of which can help enable plasticity.
By effectively combatting stress and anxiety, you have a better chance of enjoying quality mental well-being and overall good health.
Does stress kill?
If not properly treated and managed, stress can lead to health complications that can eventually prove fatal.
Is stress and anxiety more harmful as you age?
The older you get, the less your body will be able to manage certain strains. This is why it’s advised to imbibe in healthy habits such as healthy eating, sufficient rest and exercise to combat the effects of stress.
Does medication help manage stress?
There are certain types of prescription medication that are available to help combat stress and anxiety. But natural remedies are more recommendable due to less risk of side effects.
Is there a difference between stress and anxiety?
Their symptoms and causes are similar and they can both lead to the same health complications. But the trigger for anxiety and stress aren’t necessarily same.
How to naturally overcome anxiety?
Anxiety might not actually be overcome but you can learn to better cope with it. Try relaxation techniques, music, meditation, exercising, and whatever else works for you. You could also try speaking to a professional