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Your Brain on Stress

When people talk about stress and health, it’s almost always in a negative context. That wasn’t always the case. As a natural response to perceived threats and challenges, stress likely plays a role in the presence of every person on the planet. That’s because a healthy dose of stress helped their ancestors stay alive.

In ancient times, stress occurred primarily when humans faced a physical threat, such as predator attacks. Of course, most people today won’t face a tiger attack, but they still feel stressed. In modern times, the stress response occurs as much for psychological reasons as it does for physical threats.

Life-threatening situations are fewer today, but the stress response people experience remains. It’s a situation that has made the effects of stress on the brain a primary concern. The topic became especially cogent during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when many people faced social and economic upheaval.

Things have not subsequently improved. An October  2022 American Psychological Survey on stress and health found that more than a quarter of adults in the United States experience such high stress levels most days that they cannot function. They cited multiple external stressors beyond their control as a reason for their stress, including inflation, violence and crime, the current political environment, and the racial climate.

The Evolutionary Role of the Stress Response

The perceived threat of imminent danger triggers the stress response. However, people today can develop feelings of stress from watching 24/7 cable news. When stressed, the body releases stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration. The intent is to provide the body with energy and focus to deal with danger.

From an evolutionary perspective, stress offers a mechanism to help humans adapt to their environment, protect themselves from danger, and survive. However, after the industrial revolution, humans in many parts of the world began to move past the threats that “used to plague us for millennia,” according to Learning Mind. Food and water are safe to consume in the developed world, for example, and most people don’t fear an animal attack as part of everyday life. Humans have evolved to the apex position among creatures on the planet.

However, while human civilization has made the world safer, for the most part, the human nervous system remains the same. According to Learning Mind, “This is where the problem lies.”

How People Experience the Effects of Stress on the Brain

The human brain and nervous system continue to react to stressors. The difference today is that people have more psychological reasons to experience perceived threats, whether real or not. A simple example of the interaction between stress and health involves how people feel while viewing a faraway event on the news. There’s a typhoon displacing families and destroying property in India, but people may feel stress and its effects in Indiana, even though they face no personal threat.

The Flight or Fight Response

In the brain, stress can lead to a “flight or fight” response. Stress impacts the amygdala, a cluster of almond-shaped cells in the brain’s base. Everyone has two in each brain hemisphere. They define and regulate emotions, store memories, and attach memories to specific emotions.

Emotions such as fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger can trigger the amygdala’s “flight or fight” response. But unlike in the ancient past, when glowing eyes from the trees created this response, people today can experience “fight or flight” because of the pressures at work, relationships, and modern life in general.

The brain’s frontal lobe – the “rational” part – can sometimes override the amygdala. The frontal lobes regulate reasoning, decision-making, and planning. However, in some cases, the response is too strong, leading to an “amygdala hijacking” of the brain.

Good Stress and the Brain

In some cases, stress remains helpful. In addition to helping people avoid physical threats, stress can improve cognitive function, boost the immune system, and help build resilience. Once someone has experienced stress in a particular situation, they can deal with similar situations differently in the future and feel less stress, according to research done by Healthline.

Healthline also notes that a Johns Hopkins study involving mothers found that those who experienced mild to moderate stress during pregnancy had children with more advanced early development skills.

Bad Stress and the Brain

Chronic stress caused by anxiety and fear can lead to problems with brain function. Past studies have shown that the effects of stress on the brain include high levels of cortisol that impair brain synapse regulation, causing people to avoid interaction with others. Studies have also shown stress can kill brain cells and reduce brain size.

Daily, low-level stress is also unhealthy. Panicking because the smartphone is not in its usual place or road rage over a minor infraction by the other driver releases the same chemicals in the brain as when humankind’s ancestors faced attacks. Over time, this leads to problems, Learning Mind reported.

Common warning signs of stress taking a toll on the brain and body include insomnia, gastrointestinal issues, and significant changes in mood or outlook.

The Touro University Worldwide Psychology Degree

Students in the Touro University BA in Psychology learn from a holistic curriculum that deepens their understanding of all aspects of human well-being, behavior, and mental health, as well as the ways stress can manifest in individual patients. This includes the effects of stress on the brain.

The 100% online program is designed for working adults pursuing a degree while maintaining ongoing personal and professional obligations. TUW allows students to transfer up to 90 credits into the program.

The 120-credit program also offers concentrations that allow students to pursue their interests. The concentrations include Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Elementary Education, Secondary Education, Special Education, Human Services, Child and Adolescent Psychology, and Forensic Psychology.

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