The Prolonged Stress Effect

Whenever you are confronted with a stress-producing situation, your hypothalamus, a tiny control center in your brain, sends out an order to other parts of the brain to release stress hormones. These are the same hormones that trigger your body’s “fight or flight” survival response.

Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles tense up to get ready for action… This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it can put your health at serious risk.

Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Some stress is beneficial. It’s the source of all motivation. We are only motivated to decrease discomfort or increase pleasure. So we wouldn’t want a completely stress-free life. That would get pretty boring after awhile and we would never accomplish anything, and that would result is our becoming quiet dissatisfied with ourselves.

Everyday responsibilities such as work and caring for your family, don’t tend to produce damaging stress levels. But things like constant fear, or sustained grief over a serious life event, a chronic illness, or the death of a loved one, can take stress into dangerous and damaging territory.

Short-term, manageable stress can actually be beneficial. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations and respond more readily when difficulties arise.

Chronic stress on the other hand; stress that continues over a long period and remains elevated can adversely affect your overall sense of well-being and take a real toll on your health.

Symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • irritability
  • anxiety
  • headaches
  • insomnia
  • depression
  • reduced immunity

The illustration below, courtesy of Healthline.com, provides an overview of the effect of stress on the body.

Courtesy of Healthline.com  

Central Nervous and Endocrine Systems

Your central nervous system, which is in charge of the “fight or flight” response in your brain, is over-active when we are stressed. The hypothalamus activates the adrenal glands signaling them to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones speed up your heart and send blood rushing to the areas of the body that need the most strength and energy to react to an emergency; arm and leg muscles and the heart.

Under normal circumstances, when the perceived threat is gone, the hypothalamus signals the central nervous system to go back to normal. But, if the perceived threat remains, such as occurs when we hold onto fears and limiting thoughts, the central nervous system fails to return to normal resulting in all kinds of physical, mental and emotional distress.

Long term stress results in what Dr. Arlene Taylor coined as Prolonged Adaptive Stress Syndrome (PASS), in which she describes eight commonly observed symptoms present in varying degrees in individuals who have spent years living an energy-exhausting lifestyle.  They common symptoms are:

1. Fatigue
The brain has to work much harder and uses up a lot of energy when trying to accomplish tasks that don’t match its own energy advantage. Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung , called this mismatch “Falsification of Type.” It occurs when we are living out of integrity with our authentic self. The additional energy-expenditure can contribute to an increased need for sleep, interference with sleep, decreased dreaming, and progressive fatigue that is not alleviated by sleep.

2. Hypervigilance
Living an high stress lifestyle can push the brain to activate a protective safety mechanism called the Reticular Activating System or RAS, which heightens protective alertness and results in hyper-vigilance, which can be exhausting. Symptoms are a heightened startle reflex, an increased sense of generalized alarm, restlessness, jitteriness, or anxiety.

3. Immune System Suppression
Stress can suppress immune system function, which has been shown to shrink the thymus gland over time, and suppress the immune system. Outcomes related to immune system suppression include a slowed rate of healing, autoimmune diseases, increased susceptibility to contagious illnesses, and/or an increased risk of developing diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

4. Reduced Function of the Frontal Lobes
When the brain is stressed and using up a lot of energy, functions not vital to survival, such as the executive functions (decision-making, planning, strategizing, problem-solving) and artistic or creative functions (composing sentences, brainstorming, designing) are reduced to a minimum. There is also a tendency toward increased injuries due to cognitive impairment, slowed thinking and/or reduced mental clarity.

Based on PET (Positron Emission Tomography) Scans, Dr. Richard Haier of San Diego has estimated that the brain may need to work 100 times harder per second when an individual is using skills outside of his/her area of natural energy advantage, which frequently occurs when external stressors are impacting daily living.

5. Altered Neurochemistry
Interference with hypothalamus and pituitary function can affect hormonal balance (e.g., decreased growth hormone, insulin production irregularities, alteration in reproduction functions, and an increase in glucocorticoids that can prematurely age the Hippocampus). Reports from mice/rat studies suggest that altered neurochemistry due to extreme or prolonged stress may interfere with the permeability of the Blood Brain Barrier.

6. Memory Problems
Dr. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University and author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers outlined several consequences of prolonged stress, including:

  • Decreased utilization of blood sugar by the hippocampus, which can create an energy shortage and interfere with the ability to store data in long-term memory, or access and recall memories at a later date.
  • Diminished neurotransmitter function, which can reduce effective communication among neurons, resulting in the inability to concentrate.
  • Increased production of free radicals, which can actually kill brain cells from within and prematurely age the brain and body.  The brain’s search engine, the hippocampus, appears particularly susceptible to negative stress.

7. Discouragement or Depression
When an event or situation feels overwhelming, the brain’s response is to conserve and withdraw. The only apparent solution to this dilemma is to find ways to reduce stress. When the conserve and withdraw response is experienced over time, it can lead to discouragement and a sense of hopelessness, creating or exacerbating depression.

The National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that 20 million people in the United States are depressed at any given time, with approximately 15% of those being suicidal. Much of this is directly attributable to uncontrolled stress.

8. Self-Esteem Problems
When clear thinking and decision-making are reduced due to high stress, mistakes increase and successes decrease.  This leads to self-recrimination which negatively impacts one’s sense of self-worth and/or exacerbates existing self-esteem problems. Behaviors indicative of low self-esteem (victim mindset) and/or inflated self-esteem (offender mindset) may emerge. An altered sense of self-worth can also impact self-care.

The Stress Equation

The brain is the first body system to recognize a stressor and it reacts with split-second timing. It can stimulate the stress response for up to 72 hours after a traumatic event—real or imagined—and even longer if you keep rehearsing the event in detail (ruminating).

It has been said that stressors generally interact with the brain in a predictable 80:20 ratio. Sometimes referred to as the 80:20 rule, the rule states that 20% of the adverse effects to the brain and body is due to the stressor itself, and 80% is related to one’s own perception of the stressor and the value or importance ascribed to it

There are times when the adverse effects on the brain and body resulting from stressful life situations exceed the typical 20% and, when that occurs, managing stress can seem exhausting. External stressors and environmental triggers ramp up internal stress responses. When this occurs, the rate at which the brain must work and the amount of energy that must be expended are increased, and the energy expenditure, in and of itself, can become a major stressor.

Over time, the effects of prolonged stress can increase the risk of self-medicating and/or adopting addictive behaviors, such as over-eating or becoming a shopaholic, in an attempt to reduce stress and “feel better.”

Bottom line: Stop stressing out about the symptoms and start finding ways to reduce the stress. When you have reduced the stress to more normal levels, the symptoms will take care of themselves. 

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