How Stress Affects Your Mind

Irritable, restless, moody, overwhelmed—what all these words have in common is a way to describe someone who is feeling the pressure of stress. We recently touched on the different types of stress—acute, episodic and chronic—in our “How Stress Affects Your Body” article and we feel it is important to break down how stress affects your mind as well and share some helpful strategies to overcome it.

To really break down how stress affects your mind, we’re going to share with you some information we learned from Madhumita Murgia, a TED Ed Lessons Worth Sharing Educator who gave an overview in the How Stress Affects Your Brain lesson online. We learned that chronic stress actually affects your brain size, structure and how it functions.

Once stress makes its appearance, your Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) Axis (the interaction between endocrine glands in your brain and in your kidneys) is activated and releases the hormone cortisol. It’s the “fight or flight” hormone that helps you work through and solve what’s stressing you. But a high level of cortisol being released over a long period of time is not a good thing. Here’s why: chronic stress increases the activity level of and number of neural connections in the amygdala—your brain’s fear center. As levels of cortisol rise, electric signals in your hippocampus (the area in the brain responsible for learning, memory and stress control) deteriorate. When your hippocampus weakens, so does your ability to control stress.

Now what makes this really scary is that the video goes on to say that cortisol can actually make your brain shrink in size (including your frontal lobe that’s responsible for functions like behavior, decision making, judgment and social interaction) and too much of cortisol will result in loss of synaptic connections. AND…it also prevents new brain cells from being formed. This will then lead you down the path of experiencing more serious forms of depression and can lead to Alzheimer’s.

The good news is that there are ways to reverse the effects of cortisol, and according to the video, exercise and meditation are the best ways. What’s really interesting is the fact that both exercise and meditation actually increase the size of your hippocampus (we had to throw in a nerd fact for you).

In addition to exercise and meditation, there are a number of other ways to relax and decrease your stress. We’d like to share a few ideas and strategies from the American Psychology Association website:

  • Identify what’s causing stress. Monitor your state of mind throughout the day. If you feel stressed, write down the cause, your thoughts and your mood. Once you know what’s bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it. That might mean setting more reasonable expectations for yourself and others or asking for help with household responsibilities, job assignments or other tasks. List all your commitments, assess your priorities and then eliminate any tasks that are not absolutely essential.
  • Build strong relationships. Relationships can be a source of stress. Research has found that negative, hostile reactions with your spouse cause immediate changes in stress-sensitive hormones, for example. But relationships can also serve as stress buffers. Reach out to family members or close friends and let them know you’re having a tough time. They may be able to offer practical assistance and support, useful ideas, or just a fresh perspective as you begin to tackle whatever’s causing your stress.
  • Walk away when you’re angry. Before you react, take time to regroup by counting to 10. Then reconsider. Walking or other physical activities can also help you work off steam. Plus, exercise increases the production of endorphins, your body’s natural mood-booster. Commit to a daily walk or other form of exercise — a small step that can make a big difference in reducing stress levels.
  • Rest your mind. According to the APA’s 2012 Stress in America survey, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. To help ensure you get the recommended seven or eight hours of shut-eye, cut back on caffeine, remove distractions such as television or computers from your bedroom and go to bed at the same time each night. Research shows that activities like yoga and relaxation exercises not only help reduce stress, but also boost immune system functioning.
  • Get help. If you continue to feel overwhelmed, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional who can help you learn how to manage stress effectively. He or she can help you identify situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.

And if you’re feeling really overwhelmed at work, then check out these ways you can decompress your work surroundings. This information can also be shared with your clients, especially those who tell a reoccurring story or scenario about always being stressed at work.


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