Stress response in the brain

What happens to us in response to Stress? When we receive a stressful stimulation, the brain triggers a series of biological reactions to put the body on alert. Known as the fight or flight response, this leads to the activation of the adrenal gland to release of cortisol and the resulting consequences of increased hearbeat, increased blood pressure, and a hyper active brainwave.

This fight and flight response comes from the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and shuts down reproduction, growth, the immune system, the blood flow to the skin and stimulates stronger memory, sharper senses while making us less sensitive to pain. Although the SNS is fast reacting in creating the fight and flight response, it is slow to shut down. At normal levels, the cortisol release has an inhibitory feedback effect on the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and helps shut the fight or flight response.

The problem comes in our current life styles with the constant stimulation of the fight or flight response which keeps our systems continually on high alert with detrimental effects on our health. If left unchecked, these high levels of stress hormones in our blood stream tip us towards the downwards spiral of adrenal fatigue and chronic stress.

When chronic stress develops, there is an overload of the short term response chemicals. The increased base line of cortisol levels is toxic for the hippocampus which tends to decrease in size, hindering the quality of memory formation, decreasing the brain’s neurogenesis ability and decreasing our learning ability. The perifrontal cortex is affected; the brain’s neuroplastic ability is decreased, resulting in loss of higher executive functions. Other areas of the brain responsible for our emotional reactions such as the amygdala tend to increase in size in situations of chronic stress and keep us in fear based learning. Hence we become emotional focused rather than problem focused.

Eventually the symptoms of chronic stress will manifest in our body and create dis-ease, poor stomach health, tension headaches, high blood pressure, even cancer.
Knowing that the brain is responsible for triggering the fight or flight response to stressors is key to finding solutions to chronic stress. The brain itself can be used to counteract the effects of stress, and we can
learn to engage our brain intentionally to manage the consequences of the fight and flight response.

There are several very simple tools we can use to intentionally engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the rest and digest response in our body. The rest and digest response returns the body resources towards the digestive system but also the brain balance needed to enjoy a healthy brain wave. Once the over stimulated fight or flight response is under control, our learning ability is enhanced, our executive reasoning functions become strong again, and the physical conditions of stress can be brought back into balance.

Physical Exercise, Mindfulness and Relaxation can help to create a healthy brain that can help us lead a positive and healthy life style where stress is well managed.

Physical exercise:
Any type of physical activity that helps you keep reasonable fitness levels and that you enjoy will support you in keeping a healthily balanced brain. However, it is important to realize that stretching our spine and releasing any tension from our spinal structure helps keep an energized and performing nervous system. It is a very good practice to start every day with a few back stretches which will only demand a few minutes of your time. Sun Salutations (Yoga) are brilliant for this type of practice.

Mindfulness and Relaxation:
The only autonomic nervous system function that can be directly affected by our conscious mind is the breath. Conscious breathing is a great way to experience deep levels of relaxation and to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.

Yoga itself is a breath focused exercise practice. It teaches breath awareness as well as specific types of breathing exercises that can be used for relaxation.

Empowerment
We can empower ourselves to manage our stress response, and return to a state of wellbeing. Exercise, a healthy diet, relaxation and learning to redirect the brain towards a positive stress response are all part of the journey. Stress Management programs are offered by WHY Retreat, and are tax deductible and FBT exempt when used by an employer as a tool to help manage workplace stress.

Acknowledgement
Source – Brain Brilliance Consulting

Read more about stress and yoga in New Zealand Yoga Scene Magazine Edition 3 page 28. Subscribe to the E-zine or a print copy here.