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Stress & the Human Brain: Facts & Fixes

It’s easy to fill a bookshelf or iPad with books on healthy ways to cope with stress. Ongoing, untreated anxiety affects physical, mental and emotional health, and comes out in ways that range from irritability and lack of focus to weight gain, insomnia and other serious conditions.

What is less known and understood about stress is how it can physically rewire the brain. Ongoing, untreated stress literally changes who we are, and not for the better. That’s why it’s key to understand not just how to bring relaxation and calm into our lives, but how to anticipate stressful triggers and, whenever possible, avoid them.

Early intervention builds coping mechanisms

While conversations about “being stressed out” are usually had by adults, children also feel stress and often have no way to express what’s going on inside their heads. That lack of coping skills means trauma and anxiety often go untreated, and these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) create toxic stress that disrupts their brain development. That, in turn, can lead to lifelong problems.

“When children experience strong, frequent or prolonged adversity at home, it creates toxic stress, which changes their brains — literally,” says ACE Awareness Foundation Director Ellen Rolfes. “ACEs disrupt brain development, physically altering their DNA. When those kids grow up, they are more likely to struggle with everything from violence to disease to incarceration.”

But there is good news: Positive experiences in the formative years can put into place the coping skills needed to manage all kinds of childhood stressors. And even adults who have survived intensely damaging childhoods can also benefit from counseling and learn coping skills to have more positive outcomes going forward.

Recognizing triggers and responses

What that means, be it for a child, a parent or any other adult, is learning to recognize emotions — and the people, places, situations or things that trigger them. From there, it’s about putting new skill sets into place so that physical and mental outcomes become less damaging for everyone involved. In short, knowledge is power.

For instance, think about the physical responses tied to anger or fear.

  • Clenched muscles, rapid breathing and a flushed face are all signs that the brain is firing out stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.
  • It also means blood is flowing away from organs and into muscles.
  • The more the brain engages in this type of “all hands on deck” activity, the more it wipes out the body’s energy reserves.
  • This chemical barrage also causes stress on the heart, nerves and respiratory system.

Slow down for the solution

There’s a reason why children are often told to, “slow down and take your time.” Being swamped under a lot of tasks or expectations is stressful in its own way, and can also take a toll on the mind and body. Burnout, anyone?

Happily, there are solutions at hand. Whether the issue is anger, fear or just the feeling that life’s challenges are overwhelming, tools exist to help everyone cope with stress.

Becoming mindful

One such strategy is engaging in mindfulness during meditation, which combines the stillness of meditation with focusing on a specific thing, such as your breath, to improve your awareness of being in the present moment. In one study, people who meditated for about 30 minutes a day saw measurable changes in the gray-matter density in the parts of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.

The idea is to focus on the sensation of breathing, and observing the here and now. Our minds tend to drift, and so a mindful meditation practice is a way to tether it to the moment, and thus be more in tune with the body and how it feels right now. Practitioners report that a daily meditation practice helps improve focus and awareness, and other research has suggested that it can help reduce blood pressure and provide other physical benefits.

Put your wellness strategy to work

Now that we’ve established life is full of stress, your brain may be wired to overreact and there might be a way to combat that, what’s next? How about putting some awareness and relaxation techniques into place in the real world so you can help combat frustration, anxiety and depression?

Let’s try a work example: Someone else got the promotion (and accompanying pay raise) you were after. The news just came out, and you’re upset and angry.

  1. Step away, preferably into a space where you can be alone.
  2. Feel the anger, but also assess the situation to see if you’re overreacting.
  3. Stay calm. Take some deep breaths. Count to 10. Or, if that doesn’t work, 100.
  4. If you can’t physically leave work, plan a trip to the gym or a long walk for later. Setting your intention to do something positive if you can’t do it right now may help create peace of mind.
  5. Don’t head straight for the nearest bar, sofa or the snack aisle. Or, if you feel like a little wallowing is necessary, set a limit (two hours on the couch or one special dessert) and give yourself permission to feel bad today alongside the goal of getting up tomorrow and making one specific, positive change.
  6. Learn that letting it go happens more than once. Chances are the anger will come back, but it’s better to feel and dismiss it 10 times than to nurture it over time.
  7. See a professional. If your company has an employee assistance program, call that number. If not, look into the local therapist community and find someone who’s trained to help angry, sad, confused people (in other words, all of us) handle what life throws at them in healthy ways.

Often, we are told that brain development, emotional patterns and coping mechanisms are hard-wired into us by a certain age. In some respects, that’s true, but humans are also incredibly adept at learning new behaviors and new ways to cope. Just look at people in recovery and you’ll see a community of people who have taken control over their brain health.

Lowering stress isn’t easy, especially in the moment, but it’s never too late to begin exploring how an “inside job” of brain reworking can lead to a healthier, happier life.

For more tips on dealing with stress and anxiety, click here.

Joe Morris

A native Tennessean, Joe Morris has written for and edited publications all around the country, covering everything from local government and courts to financial institutions and celebrities. He has many years of experience writing and editing employee- and consumer-focused healthcare publications.

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Get more information about specific health terms, topics and conditions to better manage your health on bcbst.com. BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also find tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the Managing Your Health tab.

WellTuned provides inspiration and practical advice for healthy living.
WellTuned does not offer medical advice. Any personal health questions should be addressed to your doctor.

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