What Is Chronic Stress? Why You Need To Master Your Thinking Habits

You probably know stress...

Maybe you're still thinking about:

  • a great love you once had?
  • how tuition for your kids?
  • what to do with your life?
  • the passing of a loved one?
  • a falling out with a friend?
  • how to ask someone on a date?
  • or how to successfully get through a date?

We all know stress in one form or another.

You do too.

There's lots of advice on stress out there.

You might have tried to follow some of that advice before:

  • "Just don't worry about your problem"
  • "Don't complain, everyone has stress"
  • "You'll be getting a heart attack with that much stress"
  • "Everything will be fine, just stop stressing"

And so forth...

And you know what? 

That's just bad advice. 

You cannot just stop being stressed.

Why?

Because (chronic) stress is like being unable to pass an exam. 

If I just tell you to study harder you'll probably keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

Stress is the same. If I tell you to relax, you might succeed for 20 minutes--but then the stress comes back. If I tell you not to complain I won't help you either, as your problem is still there.

So what's the solution?

You need a strategy.

A terrific long-term strategy to conquer stress.

That's exactly what I'll give you.

Stress makes me think about the 1987 movie Hellraiser:

"Angel to some, demon to others"

Although the context of that phrase was very different in that movie, applied to the concept of "stress" it's very true.

Stress can build you up or bring you down. I'll move you closer to the first option. 

Promise.

Acute stress exists for a good reason: to warn you of imminent danger. Imminent danger can be a dangerous cliff or a life-threatening predator. 

So let me give you a summary of the argument I lay out in great detail in the blog post below:

That acute stress response basically signifies a "fight, flight or freeze" response. Back when our ancestors lived in Africa, you would either fight the animal, flee, or be frozen in petrification.

Different brain areas are responsible for managing that acute stress response. Your senses pick up on the stressor - such as a predator - which are connected to the "amygdala", a danger-sensing brain area.

That amygdala can sound the alarm and tell another brain area, called the "hypothalamus", to create stress hormones.

How to prevent that acute (psychological) stress response from occurring in the first place?

The savior in this situation is the "prefrontal cortex", which is exceptionally developed in human beings. That prefrontal cortex can calm down the amygdala so that your hypothalamus does not create stress hormones such as "adrenaline".

This blog post is part of a 2-part series on chronic stress. The second, next installment will teach you about different ways to counter chronic stress. This installment teaches you how to understand the problem.

Understanding stress subsequently helps you deal with the problem much more effectively.

Ready?

Let's go:

 

 

What Is Chronic Stress? Why You Need To Master Your Thinking

I've divided this blog post into several sections. Below I've listed the table of contents of this blog post:

For maximum comprehension, it's best to read all sections consecutively - so personally I'd start with the introduction below:

 

 

Introduction: Is All Stress Created Equal?

Stress slowly kills you.

You've got racing thoughts about things that shouldn't even be that important. Examples are  what to buy for your best friend's birthday in three days, or a presentation at your job next month.

Let's consider that presentation for example. 

In that case, you might be continually imagining worst outcome scenarios. Breathing becomes more difficult, and your heart is working extra hours this week. Maybe you're even nauseous or having sleep troubles.

You might tell a colleague about your stress, and she might say: "really? Don't worry about it. It will all be fine." 

But you already know that all is fine deep down. And yet, knowing that a presentation is not going to be the end of the world is not putting an end to the stress...

So, what's the real solution, contrary remarks that "everything is going to be all right"?

Before I give you the answer, let's first look at what not to do:

Hopefully you're not consuming alcohol, doing drugs, watching television, closing off from life, or engaging in other self-destructive behavior to deal with stress. With such "stress management strategies", you'll only dig a deeper hole for yourself.

After using such a strategy to "manage" stress, you'll be even more stressed the next day. This blog post I'll supply you with some much better ways to deal with stress:

I'll essentially give you a free stress relief management course, integrating all best techniques to conquer stress.

I have to warn you: you cannot beat stress in a single day. Beating stress is more like a small journey.

Don't lose your confidence if you cannot make massive improvements in one week.

So, let's talk about stress...

"Let's talk about stress baby, let's talk about you and me....". Oh, that's not the way the song went. Stress must already messing up my brain...

You might be asking: "what's stress anyway?"

That's a great question!

Stress is often talked about as a monolithic one-sided entity. In actuality, there are many different types of stress:

  • You've got your mother in law who's calling you three times a week (come on, just admit that's stressful...)
  • There's stress in the form of radiation you get exposed to, when you're undergoing an x-ray scan
  • You're fasting for 16 hours a day
  • You might have an important deadline at work next month
  • You've just started a business and you're worrying about whether things will prosper
  • You're getting exposed to artificial light at night, which inhibits deep sleep. You're thus not getting rested at night
  • You've been chronically overtraining, killing your recovery
  • You just became a father, or mother, which scares the shit out of you

We'll explore all the different types of stress in more detail later on.

At first sight, these types of stress mentioned above seem similar. 

And these different types of stress do indeed have similarities: they all increase the energy demands of your body. In turn, your body needs to turn up its energy production.

That increase in energy production helps your body cope with the cause of stress. If your body fails to increase energy production, there are often negative health consequences.

But remember that not all types of stress are created equal.

Different types of stress originate through different causal mechanisms, and how they affect your body and health is also different. Let's try to distinguish between various types of stress:

I'll explore different types of stress through the concept of "hormesis".[21; 22; 23; 24; 25; 26; 86; 87] Hormesis entails that a light stressor can be beneficial for health, while larger stressors are unhealthy.

That concept of hormesis might sound difficult but stay with me...

Let me give you a simple example.

Let's say I exercise twice a week. Let's also assume that I can recover adequately from those exercise sessions. In that case, exercise is a hormetic stressor: by placing some stress on my body, my body compensates by getting stronger.

In other words, the hormetic response occurs because the stress that exercise creates is not too light, but not too extreme either.

Alternatively, I might be visiting the gym 12 times a week. Let's also say I've never exercised intensely before committing to these twice a day sessions. In that specific case, the stimulus is too big for my body to handle.

The hormetic response subsequently doesn't occur: instead of getting stronger in response to stress, my body and health get weaker and weaker over time. I'll start overtraining.

Lastly, I can exercise too lightly. In that case, there's also no hormetic response. My health doesn't improve in turn.

In this guide, I make a distinction between four different types of stress:[2; 3; 4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12; 13; 14; 15]

  • First, there are stressors that are both hormetic and useful - exercise is one example.

  • Secondly, there are stressors that are hormetic but not useful and therefore, do not cause the body to compensate in the right way towards the initial stimulus. 

    In other words, by applying these types of stress most people will not actually get healthier and stronger. Pesticides fall into this category, for example, which many people are already overdosing on those.

  • Thirdly, there are stressors that don't give any hormetic response. 

    These stressors are to be avoided at all costs. An example of this stressor is excess very low-quality vegetable oils, such as canola oil. All the stressors in this category just break down your health.

  • Fourthly, there are psychological stressors, which are (partially) in the eye of the beholder. You're all acquainted with such stressors: psychological stress is the customer yelling at you.

(The first three types of stressors are biological, which I interpret as having to do with your physical body. Psychological stressors, secondly, have to do with your mind.)

If that sounds complicated, let me simplify that message.

You'll easily understand once I give more examples. Let's further distinguish between these types of stress...

First, some examples of hormetic stressors:

Of course, you can overdo all these stressors. Fasting for 2 weeks, and getting 8 hours of sunlight exposure will not make most people stronger but weaker instead.

Secondly, let's look at some examples of less or non-useful hormetic stressors:

These hormetic stressor generally kill your health:

  • Getting exposed to x-rays during a hospital visit. The dose of x-rays almost always exceeds what's healthy for your body.
  • The stress response when your tooth fillings emit a substance called "mercury". Mercury is a heavy metal. Most people already have toxic levels of this substance in their bodies.
  • Exposure to nuclear radiation, because the dose should remain very low for that radiation to be beneficial.
  • Electromagnetic radiation through cellphones, cell towers, 5g networks, etcetera

Bear with me.

My distinction between hormetic and less useful hormetic stressors is absolutely essential to the argument I'm going to make.

Thirdly, there are stressors which are non-hormetic, and non-useful:

All stressors from this category need to be avoided like the plague (or your mother in law...)

This category includes stressors like over-saturating your cells with too many vegetable oils, which may decrease energy production.[69; 70; 71] Other examples are:

  • Air pollution when living in a crowded city, or toxic mold exposure. There's no benefit to exposure to these substances.
  • Remaining awake clubbing until 4AM. You'll disrupt your 24-hour day and night cycle. You won't get any health benefits by getting "used" to such a rhythm.

Non-hormetic and non-useful stressors just plainly damage you, and don't provide any health benefits.

(Advanced explanation: I do think that polyunsaturated fatty acids - specifically EPA and DHA - from fish are different from polyunsaturated fatty acids from vegetable oils. Note that I'm not advocating for fish oils, but for oily fish consumption, or better yet: shellfish consumption. Fish oil (or cod liver oil) do not supply the fatty acids in their evolutionary package, and are often rancid.)

Fourthly, there are psychological stressors.

Psychological stressors are incredibly important to properly deal with because they are present everywhere in our modern society.

Psychological stressors include your boss calling you in the middle of the night, road rage, ruminating about your marriage, or transitioning jobs. 

Psychological stressors can actually be divided into several categories - road rage is not the same as transitioning jobs. Different people experience different categories of psychological stressors differently. More on that later.

I'm actually also going to argue that psychological stressors are hormetic in some instances. 

Stay with me to find out why...

Before we'll look at different types of hormesis and psychological stressors, however, let's first define what stress fundamentally is. Giving a definition of stress allows you and me to know for sure we're talking about the same thing when discussing "stress". 

Believe me, I've had people argue with me on the exact definition what entails "stress".

 

What Is (Chronic) Stress? A Definition

In the past, I've defined stress as follows:

"Stress is a (perceived) inability to deal with demands placed upon you, which leads to both physical as well as mental burden and strain."

Now, per definition, stress denotes a stimulus that currently lies beyond our capacity to immediately deal with. In other words, the demand that's placed upon you cannot be dealt with through your body's current level of energy production.

If enough energy is not immediately available, your body increases the production of stress hormones, such as "cortisol" and "adrenaline".

Stress thus pushes you out of balance. Stress challenges you...

an analogy of stress sytmpoms
(Just the perception of an increased need
for exertion can cause stress reactions.
(Unless you've been there many times,
and completely adapted to the stressor.)

 

A stressor is always the cause of stress.

The stressor is thus what originates a possible stress reaction in you. Stressors can be found outside the body, such as a toxin or a lion that makes you afraid, but also inside your body, psychologically.

It's essential to get this part of my claim: the stressor that causes the stress reaction in you does not have to be real - they can be merely perceived.

For example, if I merely think that I don't have the time to catch the train, I'm subjected to a psychological stressor - although, in reality, I might be perfectly on time.

If the demand the stressor places on your body reaches a certain threshold, the result is stress. The increased energy production of your body in reaction to (perceived) stressors allows you to deal with the stress.

You have to realize one thing:

Stress is always there for a reason: helping you survive.

Even though there's always a reason for stress, I do think there's a difference between what is commonly called 1) "acute stress"; and 2) "chronic stress". 

(There are also stress levels in-between "acute" and "chronic" but for the sake of argument I'll simplify and just talk about the two.)

Acute stress would be having a stress response towards intense exercise, helping you deal with a deadline two days from now, or to get you through a 16 hour fast. In these cases, stress actively helps you deal with the situation.

Chronic stress, however, would be having an extreme stress reaction every time you have to leave the house, worrying every night before a deadline that still lies 3 months in the future, or having chronic low-level anxiety because of childhood trauma. 

Chronic stress does not go away very easily.

While there's a reason for having a stress response in the case of chronic stress, the stress response is fundamentally unhealthy. E.g., your childhood trauma is the reason (stressor) why you're continually having a stress response whenever you see a friendly face, even though that continuous reaction makes you unhealthier in the long term.

Other types of chronic stress would be an obsessive-compulsive disorder or neurotic reactions. In both situations, you're continually worried about something that should not really matter.[16; 17; 18; 19; 20]

I would thus consider stress beneficial insofar it helps you deal adequately with the world.

So if stress improves your ability to act in accordance with your values, also in the long term, it's great. Insofar stress inhibits your ability to act in accordance with your values, it's destructive. Chronic stress almost always falls within the latter class.

In all instances, categorically, chronic stress does not help you deal with your life's project you deem important. All types of chronic stress thus need to be eliminated as much as possible.

(More on dealing with chronic stress later.)

another analogy to hormesis
Hormetic stressor? Or plain stupidity?
In this situation, at least, there's
a good reason for having acute stress.

 

When exposed to stressors, your body can have several reactions. We'll distinguish between two possible reactions

First, your body adequately deals with the stressor

In that instance, a certain "toxic" substance you ingested may be eliminated, or you might become more motivated and assertive because of the increase in certain hormones and brain signaling substances.

I might just get motivated - which then helps me perform - and body adequately deals with the stressor.

There are also situations where your body cannot easily deal with the stressor.

In that case, you'll end up with what is called a "fight, flight, or freeze" response.[28; 29; 30]

Our ancestors might have come across a lion. As a response to observing that lion, they might choose to fight the lion (hopefully with the help of tools), flee from the lion, or be frozen in absolute petrification.

The hormones and brain signaling substances that are pre-dominant in your body differ for each response.

A fight response, for example, has a predominance of other neurotransmitters than a freeze response.[31; 32; 33; 34; 35] The freeze response is so heavy, that your brain and body are shut down. That freeze response happens in situations where there's no way out, and both "fight" or "flight" are not an option.

The freeze response means that you'll literally be frozen in shock. During the freeze response, your heart rate and metabolism actually slow down, instead of going up as with a fight or flight response. 

Your body prepares for its ultimate demise when it's freezing.

Fight and flight responses, alternatively, are more characterized by the stress hormones "cortisol" and "adrenaline" 

You might be thinking: "what do these reactions have to do with me"/

Let me, therefore, tell you where modern life goes wrong.

We're triggering acute stress all the time.

Triggering the fight, flight, or freeze response too often will lead to chronic stress.[4; 36; 37; 38; 39; 40]

Instead of having an acute stress response just once, your body creates pumps out stress hormones all the time. Additionally, your body will increase its blood pressure, heart rate, and flood your blood with nutrients such as sugars or fatty acids - all to cope with the stressor. 

How to think about the difference between acute and chronic stress? I've paraphrased my favorite meditation teacher Thom Knoles of stress many times on this topic :

"It's not stress that's the problem. it's staying stressed that's the problem."

Phrased differently, it's not bad that you got afraid of the male lion. It's bad if the fear of the lion is still in the back of your mind one week after you met him.

Once you're in chronic stress, you're entering a vicious cycle. Stressed people often make choices that put them into an even deeper hole.

Watching hours of television, drinking too much alcohol, using drugs, or eating junk food are common examples of what people use to deal with chronic stress.

During chronic stress, your inability to deal with stress also keeps stressors in the back of your mind all the time. As a result of having stressors in the back of your mind all the time, you're becoming even more stressed.

Even your threshold for acute stress is lowered if you're chronically stressed: smaller and smaller stressors already start to create a stress response in you.

Three months ago, you might be able to ignore your screaming boss with some effort. Now you're chronically stressed, however, you can immediately feel the stress hormones flowing once your boss has an outburst.

Chronic stress increases your chances for getting all kinds of diseases and adverse health consequences, such as:[40; 41; 42; 43; 44; 45; 46; 47; 48; 49; 50; 51; 52; 63; 64]

  • Burnout and depression
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic pain, or intensifying regular pain sensations
  • Addiction
  • Poorer immune function
  • Ulcers, which are "breaks" in your tissues. Ulcers can occur in the gut or intestines as a results of stress.
  • A decrease in brain volume in certain areas such as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for memory formation, reward and punishment, and your sense of environmental navigation.

Excessive (chronic) stress makes you unable to deal with the demands placed upon you, because your body is less and less able to generate adequate energy.

To me, all stress is fundamentally an energy problem.

If you have lots of perceived stressors, such as a deadline 2 months down the road, the chance of going bankrupt, a bad family life, and even stressing about stress itself, your body's energy response can thus not adequately deal with the demand placed upon you. 

That colleague of yours who's always angry at your job might be chronically stressed - not having the recuperation available to lower stress levels again.

Let's, therefore, explore how the acute stress response originates, and how acute stress actually becomes chronic stress. That's how we end up in the third section: stress and your brain.

(Advanced explanation: for simplicity's sake, I just talk about energy in this guide. In reality, both "information" and "energy" matter. An example of information would be how sunlight (and environmental light programs your circadian rhythm. That light does not just carry energy.))

 

Stress Explained Through Different Brain Areas.

To understand how your brain creates acute and chronic stress, I'll talk about different brain areas. Understanding how these brain areas get conditioned towards continually creating acute stress responses will help you understand why chronic stress exists - and why chronic stress persists.

Let's consider the system in your brain that's most concerned with emotions: the limbic system. Emotions and stress are highly intertwined in your brain, so your limbic system plays a major role in stress.

Once emotions go haywire, it's hard to control your stress levels. Master your emotions, on the contrary, and it's easy to have low stress levels.

In gold I've emphasized three important brain areas that are related to that limbic system:

description of how stress alters and affects the brain 

You don't have to remember everything on that picture.

Please also keep in mind that my depiction of the brain is an oversimplification. I'm just talking about general patterns of facts about the brain--the details are far more complex.

In reality, for example, there's no hard dichotomy between "rational" and "emotional" parts of the brain. These parts actually overlap. There are nevertheless areas which are specialized towards more rational thought, and areas targeted more towards emotions.

The distinction between "rational" and "emotional" brain areas will surely help you understand chronic stress though.

Let's consider the five brain areas displayed above in more detail:

  1. The amygdala is one of the most primal areas of your limbic system.[171; 172; 173; 174]

    In this brain part, the most primal emotional responses originate. For now, we'll equate the acute stress response with that "primal emotional response"

    Very often you'll experience an emotion - like anger, fear, or disgust - which takes over your behavior because the emotion originates in the amygdala. When the amygdala is initially activated, the higher parts of your brain do not have the ability to regulate that emotion yet.

    Your amygdala can be hijacked through trauma or chronic stress. In that instance, your amygdala is more prone to create destructive emotions which are very hard to regulate by other brain areas.[175; 176]

    How?

    Let's say you fail very badly during important presentations many times in a row. In that case, the amygdala is conditioned towards feeling negative emotions towards giving important presentations. The fear response gets triggered more and more easily.

    Any time you think about presenting, your body creates an acute stress response. As a result, you might even start to experience anxiety a week before you actually need to present. 

    If you're chronically stressed, your amygdala thus creates lots of stressors that shouldn't be stressors in the first place. The sensitization of your amygdala equals the "threshold of stress" being lowered, which I mentioned earlier.

    The amygdala has one important feature: it acts automatically. 

    If you observe a dangerous animal - such as a snake - your amygdala thus automatically reacts. That instinctive reaction is great because it helps you survive.

    In modern society, your amygdala can get "hijacked", and create acute stress responses towards events that are not existential threats. 

    Your amygdala can be programmed to consider almost anything a stressor: getting an e-mail from your boss, being stuck in traffic, or the thought of having to be early for the train tomorrow morning. All of these events are not existential life or death situations.

    If your amygdala gets hijacked, it reacts automatically towards stimuli that shouldn't be a stressor in the first place. Every time you see a projector with a presentation screen, your amygdala might automatically make you anxious, because it's been programmed to act that way.

    It's important to understand that the amygdala can trigger such a response before you become fully conscious of what's happening and before you have time to think or react. 

    Most acute stress responses modern people are therefore is totally useless. You would be a lot better off to be motivated instead.

    Motivation is totally different than a "fight, flight or freeze" response. Motivation helps you perform at your highest levels, and boosts your creativity. With lots of motivation and low stress, you'll perform as if you were playing a game with friends: both playful and serious, while blistering your highest expression of genius.

    In stress, your creative options are severely limited, and you're prone to repeat the behavior you're most used to. Stress makes you unable to think outside the box.

  2. The brain nerves, brainstem, and forebrain make up the most basic sensory system of your brain. 

    Many sensory stimuli - originating from the eyes and nose - are directly connected via the brain nerves to the forebrain. Other nerves in your brain, not directed at seeing and smelling, have pathways towards the brainstem.

    Don't worry about remembering all these areas. It's just important to know is that the brain areas from this second category give your brain its basic sensory input.

    That brainstem, for example, is also connected to the amygdala. Through its connection to the amygdala, parts of the brainstem give the sensory input based upon which the amygdala can automatically ring the alarm bells.[183; 184; 185; 186; 187]

    Based on the input of your brain nerves, which connect your senses to the brainstem and forebrain, which then connect to the amygdala, you can be subconsciously triggered by anything in your environment.

    A foul smell, for example, can trigger your brain nerve tasked with smelling and create an immediate fight or flight response.

  3. Located in your forehead lies the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of your brain. 

    You'll want the prefrontal cortex to be the driver of your brain as much as possible because that's when your "higher self" is in control. 

    This part of your brain acts slower than the sensing brain areas that are connected to the amygdala. In other words, your senses and amygdala respond to potential threats first, and your prefrontal cortex can only be activated later.

    That previous statement entails that your amygdala can make you act unconsciously first, while the conscious thinking and rational thought only happen afterward when the prefrontal cortex kicks in.[188; 189; 191; 192]

    Fortunately, the prefrontal cortex can control your amygdala after anxiety, fear, or disgust sets in.[194; 195] With good self-control, the prefrontal cortex can thus regulate the amygdala, telling that brain-part that an excessive emotional response is unwarranted.

    In chronic stress, your prefrontal cortex gets rewired to be less active. 

    That re-wiring is a problem because it makes it harder and harder to regulate your amygdala. Through meditation - a topic we'll touch upon later - you can re-wire your brain the other way around: increasing the regulatory activity of your prefrontal cortex.

    Don't worry if your prefrontal cortex currently has little regulatory capacity over your emotions and acute stress responses: I'll tell you how to train your brain...

  4. The hypothalamus determines whether stress hormones actually have to be released.[195; 196; 197]

    Every time your amygdala creates a fight, flight or freeze response, it's actually the hypothalamus that tells your body to start creating stress hormones. 

    Very simple...

  5. Lastly, there's the hippocampus, the main center where memories are stored.[198; 199; 200; 201]

    The memories stored in the hippocampus can both inform the amygdala as well as the prefrontal cortex. 

    By informing the prefrontal cortex of what happened in the past, the hippocampus can help your brain make decisions.

    Under extreme stress, however, the hippocampus does not store memories properly. Your brain will thus not learn anything good from very stressful experiences.

    Nevertheless, your amygdala will still get sensitized under that extreme stress situation. You'll essentially learn nothing from the stressful experience, will that stress is more easily triggered next time.

    The amygdala and hippocampus can also reinforce each others' activity, which takes control away from the prefrontal cortex - the rational part of your brain.[208; 209; 210] 

    Moreover, the hippocampus itself is also impaired under chronic stress.[446; 447The parts of that brain area associated with memory literally shrink, while emotional parts of the hippocampus enlarge. 

    Succesful dealings with stress can, fortunately, be stored in the hippocampus. The end-result of successfully dealing with stress is that your prefrontal cortex can access the next time there's a difficult situation.

    In this guide, I'll tell you how you can store positive dealings with stress in your hippocampus, so that next time, you'll be better prepared. 

    Let's explore why memories matter...

    If you've got lots of reference experience with dealing with a certain stressful situation - like 100s of presentations - then the next time you're engaging in that situation won't be as stressful as the first.

    Practice thus does make perfect...

That's all you need to know about the different brain areas involved with stress. 

Let's now consider the (acute) stress response in more detail, especially in relation to these brain areas.

Remember from the previous section that your brain pumps out chemicals once you get into a fight, flight, or freeze situation.[28; 29; 30; 31; 32; 33; 34; 35]

These chemicals can include "cortisol", "adrenaline", or "acetylcholine". Keep in mind that the first two are stress hormones, while the third is more associated with the "freeze" response.

Remember that this stress response was mostly triggered in our ancestors for situations where there's a predator or another danger, such as walking a dangerous cliff.

The stress hormones increase the nutrients available in your blood - such as sugars or fatty acids - which help you perform in order to stay alive. This short-term stress also suppresses pain and fear. In that life or death struggle, stress literally helps save your life.

The more often you have a stress response, the worse you'll perform. Acute stress becomes chronic stress:

Chronic stress does therefore not only lead to a list of diseases, as laid out in the previous section. Chronic stress causes lots of other symptoms as well as:[202; 203; 204; 205; 206; 207; 211; 212; 213; 214; 215; 216; 217; 218; 219; 220; 221; 222; 223]

  • The functioning of your immune system is undermined
  • You'll gain weight - especially the more dangerous belly fat
  • Your blood sugar levels are disturbed. Stress floods your blood with sugars and fats initially but done often enough (if you have chronic stress), your cells no longer take these nutrients up properly
  • Your long-term memory recall is impaired, while short-term memories are less likely to be stored
  • You're angrier and more anxious, and your overall mood is lower. You can even get depressed.
  • Your prefrontal cortex is inhibited, and can even shrink in size
  • You'll be more prone to self-medicate through alcohol and drugs
  • And lastly: you may age quicker

Chronic stress doesn't sound so great for performance and health after all right? 

I hope you can now understand why a chronic stress response is so toxic. And yet, many people tell me they need stress to perform. Big mistake.

I'll give you an example of how your brain works on (extreme) chronic stress:

John is 42 years old, and has been stressed for several months now. He's had deadline after deadline at his job, and he's really looking forward to the summer holidays. 

From the outside, people see the "normal" John. Maybe his appearances has changed somewhat, because he's sleeping for fewer hours at night, but otherwise he looks very normal. 

When seeing the bags under John's eyes, his colleagues just assume he's been going out partying during the weekends. John's colleagues are aware John has split up with his wife 2 years ago, so they attribute the sleepless look to that event.

On the inside, however, John is boiling. He's continually anxious, doesn't sleep more than a few hours at night, and drinks liters of coffee each day just to finish his obligations.

When his boss spontaneously requests John present his findings next morning, John loses it. He yells "who do you think I am?! God? Can't you give that task to any of these 15 lazy bastards working here?"

John immediately apologizes after realizing what he's said, in fear of losing his job. He's deeply ashamed of his outburst.

That outburst, however, was only natural. John's amygdala has been putting out a danger signal multiple times per day for months now. For most of that time, his prefrontal cortex had been doing a good job of regulating his behavior. 

Now, at a moment John was already extremely stressed, the increased demand of the presentation puts him over the edge. John does not have great experiences with presentations, so his prefrontal cortex cannot rely on his hippocampus suggestion on how to solve this problem.

Due to Jack's lack of energy - through many sleepless nights - his prefrontal cortex is helpless in regulating his amygdala this time. That helplessness caused the outburst. And after his outburst, John's amygdala fires up once again, after he realizes how he's just behaved.

John instinctually apologizes...

The pattern where your higher brain region - the prefrontal cortex - cannot control your amygdala is present in chronic stress, burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[415; 416]

The world starts to become an unstable and unreliable place because worst-case scenarios are continually raging through your mind. Once your prefrontal cortex loses control, you'll filter and imagine everything through a negative lens.

Chronic stress is thus not something you should allow to develop in the first place.

I can still imagine though, that it's difficult to understand how all these brain areas relate to each other. In the next section, I'll, therefore, give you a simple analogy to understand these brain regions.

 

An Analogy To Understand Brain Areas Involved In Stress.

There we go. An analogy to understand the brain regions involved in stress.

Imagine a car with two adults: a driver and a front passenger. There are also two children in the back, both in the passenger seats.

That car is an analogy for your body. The driver and passengers stand for different parts of your brain.

  1. The prefrontal cortex the driver of the car. The prefrontal cortex can direct the car when steering, or change the gears. 

    The driver can also attempt to control all other persons in the car, but that act takes away attention from driving.

  2. The hippocampus is analogous to the front passenger. The hippocampus helps the driver navigate, but also tends to the needs of the children. Only if the hippocampus is undisturbed by the children in the backseat, can the hippocampus really help the driver.

    Remember that the hippocampus is your main memory area, that works best when there's little (chronic) stress.

  3. There's a three-year-old in the backseat. This child stands analogous for the hypothalamus. If this kids starts screaming, the driver loses some of its control. The front passenger (hippocampus) also has to shift attention, and can no longer help the driver.

  4. There's also a hyperactive teenager in the backseat. That hyperactive teenager is an analogy for the amygdala. If this teenager gets unresty, he can set off the three-year-old next to him (hypothalamus).

    A disaffected teenager is the last thing the driver and navigator want. The entire journey becomes impossible if the teenager becomes rebellious over and over again (which signifies chronic stress' effect on the amygdala).

  5. The windows stand for the input your brain gets through sensory input. These sensory input areas are the brain nerves, brainstem, and forebrain I've mentioned earlier. 

    In other words, all passengers in the car get their input about the world from through the windows.

Let's consider how the car can drive properly, and how things can turn south...

First, if the car drives properly, the driver is fully in control.

The 3,5 year old (hypothalamus) in the backseat stays relaxed because all is well. The teenager (amygdala) has had a good upbringing and stays quiet most of the. Because the passengers are well behaved. the front passenger (hippocampus) can help the driver navigate without much stress, and the car arrives at its destination.

The driver can lose control in several ways though:

If the 3,5-year-old in the backseat is set off, or the teenager becomes rebellious because he does not like what he sees, the navigator (hippocampus) will not function well and no longer navigate.

The more rebellious the teenager gets, the more the driver (prefrontal cortex) has to divert attention from the road and calm down the teenager (amygdala).

Under chronic stress, the driver is losing control over and over again.

All hell breaks loose. The driver might shut down, and follow the instructions of the teenager, instead of following his/her own course.

The navigator (hippocampus) might not work at all anymore, due to the influence of the teenager (amygdala), making the ride impossible. The 3 year old (hypothalamus) in the backseat starts crying all the time (putting out stress hormones), creating havoc.

The end result is that the car cannot navigate the world properly.

You know what's even more amazing? 

After driving towards the wrong direction a few times, the teenager ends up more stressed than before, begins to rebel even more, and intensifies the inhibition of the driver's ability to steer the car.

It's important to remember that the vehicle didn't become so chaotic within a month. It takes time to end up with a teenager (amygdala) that's out of control.

Of course, with a good upbringing, the teenager might still throw a tantrum once in a while (acute stress). But nevertheless, the driver would be able to reign in the teenager, so that they can all arrive at their destination.

With very poor upbringing, however, the teenager can become ever more rebellious. If the teenager is not reigned in at the outset, he'll become more and more impulsive. In the end, with all the impulsivity, the teenager derails the journey for everyone.

You might be thinking: "how can we understand that development of the different brain regions through time?"

Great question...

Your brain - and your limbic system therefore as well - is actually "neuroplastic". Neuroplastic means that your brain can change over the course of your lifetime.

Remember that your amygdala can get hijacked through trauma or chronic stress. The good news is that you can also reverse that process by re-programming parts of your brain to react differently to stimuli in your environment, such as stressors.

The teenager in the backseat, and the driver, can thus be changed back to their proper role.

Neuroplasticity can help you recover from alcohol addiction, anxiety disorders, or depression, for example.[176; 177; 178; 179]

Through neuroplasticity, you can even re-program how your brain is wired, how different parts of your brain respond to each other, and the size of different brain areas. 

If you've experienced lots of stress during your early life, for example, your amygdala might be enlarged. Having a traumatic experience can make your prefrontal cortex smaller, lowering the control your "main driver" has over your brain.[180; 181; 182] 

Overall, there are different reasons why brain areas give rise to stress.

Your amygdala might be overactive due to lots of stress early in your life, or your prefrontal cortex might have lost control due to trauma. In chronic stress, your prefrontal cortex loses its ability to stay active.[417; 418; 419; 420; 421] Alternatively, the prefrontal cortex might not be able to dial in your amygdala properly.

In all these instances, the car (your brain) will be unable to explore the world properly (act in accordance with what you really want).

Getting the car's driver (prefrontal cortex) and all the passengers back on track will help you navigate and act out your thoughts in the world rationally.

We'll return to this analogy throughout this guide. First, we'll look at the elephant in the room to explore the world better: looking at the car itself. 

By upgrading the car, you'll also make sure that you can reach your destination quicker.

Got it?

Now you should be able to understand what happens in both acute and chronic stress. Let's therefore conclude:

 

Finishing Thoughts: You Better Control Your Brain And Mind!

Not all stress is useful...

By mastering your brain and mind you will become healthier, more productive, happier, and many other positive things over time. But how? Stay tuned for the next installment in this series that gives you actual solutions to the stress problem.

Understanding stress is half the battle though...

Why?

Simple: if you don't understand a problem then you won't usually find a solution either. And even if you do find a solution, it's only a correct guess and not really a result of intentional action.

Just ask yourself: would you rather get an A for a test by accident or because you've studied hard and mastered the subject?

Likely, would you rather become financially independent by sheer luck or because you understand how to make money?

I reckon it's always the latter option you'd opt for...

Stress is the same. By understanding stress, as laid out in this blog post, you're then better able to apply the solutions offered in the next installment.

 

This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant at Alexfergus.com. 

 

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