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Stress on the mind: how stress affects the brain

Stress kills brain cells. Recognise the stages of stress and escape the stress cycle before it affects your cognition.

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April 15, 2021
8 min read

Nearly eight out of 10 adults say they feel regularly stressed. But stress does far more than just affect your mood and emotions. It has very real, measurable effects on your brain health and can significantly impair your cognitive performance. 

There are also ramifications for your physical health. Dizziness and muscle aches, stomach problems and chest pains—they can all be signs that stress is wreaking havoc on your body. Left unchecked, your blood pressure can rise, increasing the long-term risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes. 

But by practising good braincare, we can learn to recognise the stages and symptoms of stress, and address our responses to escape the chronic stress cycle.

Symptoms of stress

In order to fight stress, we first need to know how to recognise it. While different people will experience different symptoms, here are some common signs to look out for.

  • Indigestion

The link between your brain and your gut is well-documented. Stomachaches, diarrhoea, and constipation can all be markers of stress, as can changes in appetite.

  • Fatigue and trouble sleeping

Stress hormones can affect your ability to sleep well, and in severe cases lead to insomnia. It can also leave you feeling sluggish and lacking in energy.

  • Acne

Stress itself doesn’t cause acne, but research suggests that it can make things worse if you already suffer from the skin disorder. So a particularly bad outbreak can be a good indicator that you’re stressed.

  • Decreased sex drive

While long accepted anecdotally, research does show that higher stress levels are associated with a decrease in arousal and sexual desire.

  • Muscle tension

Ever found yourself clenching your jaw? That could be down to stress. Extra tension in your muscles can be a sign that your body is feeling the effects of stress.

Understanding the 5 stages of stress

When we encounter a stressful situation, we don’t just go from zero to 60 right away. 

Learn how to recognise the five distinct stages of stress. 

Understanding the signs and symptoms can help you get ahead of the problem, and start to take measures to reduce your stress response and escape the chronic stress cycle.

Stage 1: fight or flight

When you first encounter a stress-triggering event, your autonomic nervous system responds quickly and automatically. Your brain tells your body to prepare to fight the risk or flee the risk, and releases chemicals that redirect blood and oxygen to your muscles, dilates your pupils so you can see more, and heightens your senses.

You may experience symptoms like:

  • Flushed, red skin

  • Sweating

  • A faster heart rate and faster breathing rate

  • Physical tension, such as a clenched jaw or clenched fists

The fight-or-flight response is a callback to our evolutionary past. The problem is that our brain doesn’t differentiate between a modern mental stressor (e.g., a late-night text from your boss, or an unexpected bill from the doctor) and the actual threat of physical harm.

Positive psychology can help you deal with this mental, automatic response:

  • Take a deep breath (or several) to literally slow your breath and your pulse.

  • Reframe the situation positively, focusing on the facts and not the many “what-ifs” and future scenarios that tend to exacerbate stress.

  • Identify a specific action or choice you can make to deal with the stress before your brain starts to spiral out of control.

Stage 2: damage control

This phase is a bridge between the stress trigger and your body’s natural return to homeostasis (balance) and calmness.

Your body and nervous system are always seeking homeostasis. After a stressful event, your body begins to release various hormones designed to calm down your fight-or-flight response.

Research has found that you can enhance and speed up this process, and move faster into the third stage of recovery, by exercising and physically moving your body. 

When you exercise, you trigger the release of additional hormones and neurotransmitters that help combat the stress response. 

Stage 3: recovery

As your body and nervous system return to homeostasis, you’ll likely feel physically tired and mentally exhausted. You’re now in the third stage of the stress response where your body and mind need rest and relaxation.

Support this natural recovery process, and create a buffer against future stress, by:

Stage 4: long-term stress adaptation

For many of us, we never truly take time to recover from stressful situations. Thanks to our always-connected lives and overcommitted schedules, most people are in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

When this happens, your body adapts to chronic stress (stage four).

In stage four, you may find yourself:

  • Always on edge

  • Reacting in fear to sudden noises

  • Experiencing physical symptoms that don’t go away (e.g., high blood pressure, chronic sweating, etc.)

  • Suffering from mental health worries like anxiety or depression

And if you remain in this adaptative fourth stage for too long, all of these symptoms and mental burdens lead to the inevitable fifth and final stage.

Stage 5: burnout

Symptoms of burnout include:

  • Alienation from activities that contributed to your burnout (e.g., work, relationships, parenting, etc).

  • Chronic physical and emotional symptoms, such as cramping, migraines or chronic fatigue.

  • Reduced performance in all areas of life, such as difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks.

As you transition through stages four and five, your body and brain demand a true reset. 

Depending on the severity of your stress, you might want to consider:

Chronic stress is an epidemic, and it affects all of us in different ways. While you can’t always fully escape stress, you can learn to recognise where you are in these five stages and take back control of your emotional response.

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Mind over matter: 4 ways that stress sabotages your brain health

1. Stress forces your brain into survival mode

It takes a lot of resources and neurological processes for your brain to take in data, catalogue and store information, and successfully process all of the details necessary for optimal learning, memory, decision making and emotional regulation. 

As you encounter different scenarios, your brain shuttles energy from one part of the brain to the next, prioritizing what it feels is most important. But when you’re stressed, your brain is forced into survival mode.

But how does this impact you?

In survival mode, your brain devotes all of its focus to the simple acts of staying alive: breathing, motor coordination, etc.

This leaves “the parts of your brain that help to store memories and perform higher-order tasks with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done,” warns Harvard Medical School. Which explains “why you might be more forgetful when you are under stress.”

2. Stress kills your brain cells

When you’re stressed, your body gets flooded with the stress hormone known as cortisol. 

This stress response increases the rate of cell death in your brain. And over time, chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to physical, structural changes in your brain.

Much of the structural change and neural death occurs in the brain’s hippocampus, which is the part of your brain responsible for learning and memory. So, it’s no wonder that we often suffer from memory loss or difficulty learning new information when we’re under chronic stress. 

3. Chronic stress increases your risk of brain health conditions

The stress hormone cortisol doesn’t just change the structure of your brain.

Numerous studies have shown that elevated cortisol is associated with an increased risk of brain diseases and neurological disorders, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

4. Stress has secondary side effects that also impact cognition

Stress has wide-reaching effects and may impact other areas of your health that have secondary influences on your brain health.

For instance, stress negatively affects your blood pressure and cardiovascular health (and optimal cardiovascular health is linked with optimal brain health). 

Stress also impairs sleep, and poor sleep quality significantly impairs learning, memory and mental health.

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Stress impairs your cognitive performance. Let your braincare supplement work in tandem with your holistic approach to stress. The Smart Supplement contains 20 powerful vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that boost cognition and improve learning, focus and memory, while also supporting stress recovery and burnout prevention.

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