The way we think, feel, and behave in response to stressors matters. Every individual reacts to stress in their own way, and that is determined by several factors:
Genetics: The genes that are involved in controlling the stress response keep most people on an even keel emotionally. Then there are other individuals who are genetically predisposed to an over-active or under- active stress response. It’s also important to note that stress hormones have a direct impact on gene expression, also known as Epigenetics.
Past Trauma: Experiencing a past trauma, can re-wire the brain to create its own stress response.
Adverse Childhood Events (ACE risk factors): Experiencing adverse childhood events such as abuse and neglect leave us vulnerable to stress.
Career: Police, Firefighters, EMS, ER Personnel, Military etc. are all at risk of re-wiring their stress response based on traumatic events they witnessed/ were involved in.
Learned: We first learn how to respond to stressors by seeing how the adults in our lives manage their stress. This is an unconscious learning that we are unaware of at the time.
Examples can be seen by how our parents, grandparents, caregivers, teachers etc. managed their stress. They can be healthy or maladaptive responses to stress.
The Surprising Impact of What We Believe to Be True About Stress:
Do you believe or did you grow up hearing that stress is negative, or that stress is killing you?
Do you believe or did you grow up hearing that stress is a natural normal response that is helpful to you overcoming a challenge you are facing?
Much research has been completed about stress and the impact our perception/belief about it has on how we physically and emotionally experience stress. This research indicates that individuals who believe stress to be a positive mechanism that allows us to overcome a specific challenge before us, are less likely to develop negative physiological consequences of that stress. Those who believe that stress is negative (stress is killing me/going to be the death of me or leaves us so overwhelmed that we find ourselves saying/thinking I don’t know how much more of this I can take) experience the negative physiological changes within the body/mind.
Biochemical Changes because of Sympathetic Dominance
Hormones impact almost every cell, organ, system, and function of the body. Hormone balance and regulation is required for optimal performance, health, and wellness. When hormones are chronically imbalanced the negative impact across the body, brain, all organ functions, and systems (including the central nervous system which is an extension of the brain) can be widespread and range from minor to catastrophic.
In addition to hormone imbalance, being stuck in a sympathetic dominant state impacts our biological processes.
Neurotransmitters, such as Dopamine and Serotonin have been shown to decrease resulting in depression. We have dozens of neurotransmitters that we know about, and of those there are seven major neurotransmitters that have been studied extensively and proven to have a profound impact on the body/mind connection and function. They are: Dopamine, Serotonin, Glutamate, GABA, Adrenaline/Epinephrine, Oxytocin and Acetylcholine. Each of these neurotransmitters are negatively impacted by being in a chronic stress state. When these neurotransmitters are out of balance the impact on mood, cognition, behaviour, sleep and circadian rhythm, appetite, energy, and sex drive can be mild to catastrophic in addition to greatly impacting quality of life.
Structural Changes of the Brain
The brain is highly impacted by chronic stress including how it functions, connectivity, and even the structure of the brain. We continue to learn more and more of the impacts of chronic stress on the brain and our neurology.
Neuro research has shown:
Limbic system impairment. The Limbic system is responsible for emotions, behaviour, memory, and olfactory. Most notably within the limbic system are changes to the hippocampus and amygdala. Decreased hippocampus (complex network responsible for learning and memory) volume. The Hippocampus plays a central role in learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex (responsible for logic, thought and reason), which regulates thoughts, emotions, and actions by communicating with other regions of the brain.
Increased amygdala volume (many studies suggest the largest change in volume is in the right side, which is associated with negative emotions, fear conditioning and plays a key role in memories). The amygdala is the integrative center for emotions (the meanings we assign to emotions, emotional memories), emotional behaviour (physiological, and behavioural reactions to emotions), and motivation. It also detects and responds to threats and contributes to the feeling of intense emotions from fear to pleasure. It should also be noted that chronic stress also increases activity in the amygdala in addition to increased volume.
Higher the stress levels equal less grey matter. The grey matter of the brain contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies and creates in part the cortical lining of the brain where our neurons reside. Chronic stress is known to cause a thinning of the cortical thickness. The grey matter includes regions of the brain/central nervous system are involved in muscle control, and sensory perception such as seeing, and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making and self control.
*Note: Within neuroscience the central nervous system is considered an extension of the brain. It too contains grey matter, mostly associated with movement.
Decreased Caudate volume (accompanied by impaired fine motor function). The caudate nucleus is part of the basal ganglia, which are involved in a variety of cognitive, and emotional functions, but are best known for their role in movement.
These are just some of highlights when it comes to the structural changes of the brain caused by chronic stress.
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