Stress has a significant effect on your mental health and brain function.
We have all heard of the negative effects stress can have on our health:
- Low energy
- Poor sleep
- Digestive issues
- Muscle tension and aches
- Heart problems
- Skin issues
- And many others
Stress has also been correlated with negative effects on our mental health which can impact our relationships, work, and quality of life:
- Low Mood
- Inability to focus
- Poor memory
- Harmful behaviours – increased alcohol/drug consumption, overeating / undernourishing, compulsive behaviour
Unfortunately, when you are under stress (real or imagined) it is difficult to “talk ourselves” out of stress. When the stress response is triggered, there are physiological systems activated that cause us to feel and respond the way we do.
Increased levels of cortisol can cause the loss of neurons in the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex.
Your prefrontal cortex helps you problem solve, make decisions, and apply rational thought. Elevated levels of Cortisol from stress can suppress or impair activity in this area of your brain causing poor decision making and judgement. When you are upset you may find it more difficult to find solutions or make good decisions. This often further perpetuates the cycle of stress with increased anxiety and negative consequences from decision-making.
The hippocampus is responsible for learning and memory. Elevated levels of cortisol have been shown to kill neurons in the hippocampus which can affect our short-term memory and our ability to form new memories properly. It also inhibits our ability to learn and assimilate new information.
Cortisol also affects the levels of Serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that helps you regulate your mood and experience feelings of happiness and well-being. Increased levels of Cortisol from prolonged stress can decrease the levels of Serotonin cause you to feel more depressed, angry, and frustrated. Serotonin also affects your sleep, digestion, and eating. This is often why in times of stress we experience sleep and digestive issues.
Unfortunately, the challenge with stress is that it can’t be avoided and once triggered it can become a vicious cycle of physiological responses that continue to feed into and augment our stress.
This is why learning to manage stress is critical to overall well-being and requires strategies that affect not just our thoughts but our physiology. We need to apply strategies that down-regulate the stress response and bring the prefrontal cortex and serotonin back online through diet, behavioural, and cognitive changes.