Many of us face situations that are difficult to handle and at times the situation goes beyond our ability to handle. We just can't handle the pressure. Anything that poses a threat to our well-being can be termed as stress. A few instances of stress can be good (positive stress or eustress) and keep us going; in fact certain amount of stress is good. However when stress becomes too difficult to handle then it begins to damage our well-being. Over time, stress damages most cognitive functions, memory and motor skills. Disrupted sleep and depression are other fallouts.
Human body responds to stressors (events that provoke stress) by activating the nervous system and specific hormones. Stress works and affects the pituitary glands located in the base of the brain. Pituitary gland is attached to the hypothalamus. While experiencing stress, the hypothalamus signals the adrenal glands to produce more cortisol and adrenaline (hormones) and release them into the bloodstream. These hormones increase the heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and metabolism.
This causes natural reactions called stress response. Reactions include:
Flight and fight response
The approach with which we respond to a challenge may also be a type of stress. When we are faced with a threat our body activates resources that work quickly to protect us, we either fight it out or get away from it as fast as we can. This is termed as the fight or flight response. In such a situation, part of our response is physiological and thus it affects our physical state.
The sympathetic nervous system in our body activates the fight or flight response when we face a stressful event. This in turn triggers:
All these factors help us protect ourselves in a dangerous or challenging situation.
When we are in a fight or flight response all our non-essential body functions like immune system, digestive system, etc slow down and concentration is focused on blood flow, rapid breathing, muscle use, etc. Stress leads to the following changes in the physical body:
Understanding stress and brain
Human brain is built to deal with stress for about 30 seconds. Any kind of long term stress can affect the brain and a person has no control over it. Stress damages almost all kinds of cognition. It can damage memory and affect motor skills too. Long term stress can disrupt the immune response and people tend to feel sick more often. Depression and lack of sleep become the order of the day.
The chemical release
How stress affects the brain
It can lead to premature aging of the brain.
Large amounts of cortisol creates hormonal imbalance thereby placing the body in a catabolic state. And the damage continues long after the stress trigger is removed. Cortisol also impairs the blood sugar maintenance system in the body. This results in mood swings, memory lapses and learning impairment. The brain-blood barrier becomes increasingly permeable thereby exposing the brain to potentially harmful chemicals and toxins in the blood.
Ways to combat stress
Various nutrients can reduce potentially harmful effects of cortisol. Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, zinc, fish oil, alpha-lipoic acid, gingko biloba and Vitamin E are among a few. Plant-based fats are ideal for the brain; virgin olive oil, avocados and seeds. Don't skimp on the complex carbohydrates and fiber. Keep yourself well hydrated. Go for magnesium-rich foods to combat anxiety and depression; pumpkin seeds, peanuts, fish, quinoa and amaranth.
Listen to music or opt for massage or Aromatherapy to give you some calming moments. Give yourself a breather once in a way from a hectic routine. Getting better organized might go a long way in avoiding sudden rush and confusions. Be better planned.