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None of us is a stranger to the feeling of stress. Anxiety and stress are typical responses that we experience throughout challenging times in our lives. In many cases, stress and anxiety contribute to stimulation and excitement, motivating us to perform better. In other cases, stress can take its toll on the mind and the body and cause a pattern of harmful thoughts and behaviors. It is important to understand your own boundaries when it comes to dealing with stress, especially trying to identify how much is too much

Although stress has its pros and cons, it is another condition that many of us seem to not understand. For some of us that experience stress and anxiety regularly, isn’t it strange that we lack the knowledge to understand how it specifically functions in the brain? When we become more educated about a certain feeling or condition, such as stress, we will be able to better recognize them when symptoms surface. In turn, we will also be able to know what we need to feel better or how to treat the condition at hand. 

What Is Stress?

Stress is how the brain and body react to any specific demand. Stress can be experienced as a physical, mental, or emotional reaction. Stress is a feeling that many individuals experience while they go through changes and development in their life. Some examples might include a performance at a job or at school, building new relationships with others, or taking on too many things at once. Even though stress is normal, long-term or persistent stress can worsen overall health and well-being as well as contribute to the development of chronic conditions. 

Stress in the Brain

Stress and anxiety occur as a response to challenging stimuli or life-threatening situations. The stress response begins in the brain, as it processes and labels external stimuli as harmful. This happens as our senses take in spontaneous information from our environment, such as hearing a loud noise or seeing an oncoming car. Our brain begins to process this information in the brain region called the amygdala

The amygdala’s responsibility is to regulate our emotions, tie emotional meaning to our experiences and memories, and aids in our decision-making. This includes processing emotions such as fear and aggression. When the amygdala perceives danger, it sends an immediate signal to the hypothalamus. 

The hypothalamus is responsible for maintaining balance without our internal body systems, otherwise understood as regulating homeostasis. When under stress, the hypothalamus produces hormones that control physical elements such as:

  • increased body temperature
  • increased heart rate
  • decreased hunger and digestion
  • alterations in mood
  • decreased thirst
  • increased breath

The hypothalamus functions as the brain’s command center, as it communicates and prepares other parts of the body and nervous system to respond to threatening stimuli. The hypothalamus also communicates with the autonomic nervous system, branching into the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary functions listed above, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. The sympathetic nervous system controls our fight-or-flight response when there is active danger. The parasympathetic nervous system controls and activates our rest and digest response after the danger has passed. 

This experience of stress initially occurring in the brain and body happens so quickly that people are not consciously aware of it. Our brain is so efficient that the brain begins processing stress before our brain’s visual and sensory centers are able to fully process what is happening. This is why our body tends to respond quickly to stressful events without being able to consciously think about acting or responding a certain way. 

Chronic Stress on the Brain

While stress itself is not always the issue, persistent activation of the fight-or-flight response, as well as the large release of hormones that come with it, can lead to chronic stress as well as the development of other chronic health conditions. When a person experiences chronic stress, their body stays on high alert even when there are no threatening stimuli present. This is likely to lead to common anxiety disorders if not treated. Chronic stress also poses itself as a risk factor for several health conditions, affecting nearly every system of the body including:

  • musculoskeletal
  • respiratory
  • cardiovascular
  • endocrine
  • gastrointestinal
  • nervous
  • reproductive

Treatments and Tips for Stress Management

Stress management can be understood similarly to how one would cope or reduce anxiety. Check out these tips to reduce anxiety, including mindful breathing, mindfulness meditation, exposure therapy, psychotherapy, and even the option of prescription medication to help relieve debilitating symptoms that may accompany stress. If you experience regular or chronic stress, it is important that you get the help that you need to prevent worsening symptoms or the development of chronic conditions. Contact your local physician or mental health professional for extra support, guidance, and evaluation of your own symptoms.

Stress is a natural response that we experience to new changes or demands in our life. Stress can be positive, as it can help us perform better or enhance our ability to focus on the present moment. When stress is persistent or chronic, it can have detrimental effects on our physical and mental health. In the brain, stress occurs through the release of various hormones that trigger different areas of the brain to respond in certain ways. This includes the sympathetic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response, as well as the rest and digest process after threatening stimuli pass. West Coast Recovery Centers understand the effect of stress, anxiety, and trauma and how each condition contributes to distressing mental health symptoms. We would love to guide you through your journey of healing. We offer numerous holistic and traditional treatment services to help individualize your care. Call us for more information at (760) 492- 6509