February 03, 2023 by Mari Pfingston-Bigelow
We all know the feeling of mounting stress - it starts as a little weed, easy enough to identify, clasp with a few fingers, and pluck from your mental garden. But with too many weeds of stress and too little time to tend the garden, weeds start to take on a life of their own and can curtail the natural growth of our sprouts and blossoms. Left unattended for too long, weeds shift the entire ecosystem and change the garden entirely.
This analogy relates to the development of stress in our brain and the long term effects that chronic stress has on our body and mind. Short-term stress is normal and healthy, developed as a mechanism for survival and for coping with unpredictable environments. But when stressors are long-term and unrelenting, we stay in a chronic state of stress and depletion. This leads to deterioration of both mental health and physical health, decreasing our capacity to function and adapt in our day-to-day life.
When we perceive a threat or other stressor is in our midst, our brain and nervous system immediately reacts. It shifts us into fight-or-flight mode, the response of our sympathetic nervous system (SNS), leading to a rapid-fire series of events. The ‘fear center’ of our brain, the amygdala, is activated and sends distress signals to the command center of the hypothalamus. This creates a cascade of activity within our nervous and endocrine systems, including the release of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
When this happens on a short-term basis, stress does what it’s supposed to do; sharpens our brain’s functioning, motivates us into action, and promotes quick response times. But long-term stress has an entirely different effect.
When this stress response system continues for too long, it can greatly decrease our ability to think, process, adapt, retain memory, and discern appropriate action and behavior. This is largely because the consistent activation of the amygdala lowers the functional capacity of other parts of the brain, including the command center of the prefrontal cortex. This means that many parts of cognitive function are affected, including memory, learning, problem-solving, creativity, and flexible thinking.
Not only that, but stress can kill brain cells and reduce the physical size of the brain, shrinking the prefrontal cortex while enlarging the amygdala. This means that our brains become even more receptive to stress, strengthening the related neural pathways and increasing the likelihood that we’ll respond similarly in the future. This also means an overall lowered emotional state and erosion of mental health, which can either lead to or worsen clinical depression.
The stress hormone release mentioned above and the fight-or-flight response does a great job at priming us for quick action; our blood is pumping, body ready to fight or run, and other systems that are perceived to be non-vital are put on pause. But if this response continues, it’s like weeds of stress slowly eroding our garden, leading to worse systemic conditions over time. Symptoms range from mild and passing ailments to serious chronic illness, depending on stress severity and length. Every system of the body is affected in one way or another, as our nerves and hormones really run the show when it comes to regulating our internal environment.
When our bodies are exposed to chronic stress, we have a lowered capacity to function normally. Because systems like digestion are deprioritized, many metabolic conditions may result; stomach aches, constipation/diarrhea, high blood sugar, obesity, and lowered absorption of nutrients can often occur. Our immune system is also compromised, increasing our chances of becoming sick. The imbalances that stress creates can lead to disturbed sleep or insomnia, lower sexual desire, altering or entirely stopping menstrual cycles, and male impotence.
The systems that essentially are put on ‘overdrive’ also become depleted, their increased use and activation leading to additional health problems. The consistent tension and guarded state of the musculoskeletal system leads to body aches, headaches, jaw pain, and increased risk of injury. The muscles of breathing also tighten, creating a shallow breath and worsening symptoms of lung conditions like asthma. In the cardiovascular system, the increase in heart rate and tightened blood vessels of the stress response can cause high blood pressure, damage to arteries, and eventually lead to stroke or heart attack.
Although all of these long term effects listed together can seem frightening, it’s ultimately a tool of empowerment. If we know the mental and physical symptoms of chronic stress, we can more easily and readily take proactive action to change our mental habits and external environment.
It can be easy to develop tunnel vision when you’re in the thick of it, not even noticing how much stress you’re experiencing. But the more you have knowledge, self-awareness, and tools for stress prevention on your side, the more you can avoid ever getting to the point of serious physical or mental health damage.
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