If a lion walked straight into this room right now some of you would shout, others would get up and hide, some would freeze, and others might take their shoe off and throw it at him (probably with a different meaning than Jennifer Hudson on “The Voice”). We react giving priority to one basic law of nature: survival. The sympathetic nervous system sends out impulses to glands and adrenaline, cortisol, and 30 more substances are released into the bloodstream. These "stress hormones" cause several changes in the body, including an increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
Now, this survival system was developed thousands of years ago, when physical threats were much more common than they are now. Nonetheless, this doesn't mean that we use this system any less. The reason behind this is that there are many types of threats. Research studies have found that our brain centers that process pain not only get activates by physical pain but also by social pain. When we feel hurt, when we have a huge disappointment, when you get into a fight with a friend, or when you feel left out. These all cause the same reaction in our brain as a slap in the face. This way, most stress responses nowadays are triggered by emotional or social causes.
Too much stress can be cognitively detrimental. Too much cortisol, for example, inhibits memory consolidation. It can go as far as to killing cells in your hippocampus, the brain area responsible of episodic memory. When we are too stressed it is literally impossible to remember information we should know. Too much stress can also affect the amount of myelin in your neurons. This makes it so that you might take longer to process information, take longer to reach complex conclusions, and even affect your emotional well-being altering the way you process emotions. As if that was not enough, anxiety-inducing events can reduce gray matter in the medial prefrontal cortex literally affecting the size of your brain.
Now, there is something essential we should know. The way we think about stress also has an effect on how it affects us. A very interesting study had participants watch one of either two videos” one video talked about stress as a performance enhancer and the other one talked about stress as hurtful to performance. It was interesting to find that the participants who saw stress as beneficial did much better at a mock interview that occurred after watching the video. What was really interesting, was that saliva samples were taken from participants. Those who watched the stress as a performance enhancer released neurosteroids, that counter the effects of cortisol. By adjusting our mind-set and seeing stress as an enhancing mechanism we can gain an advantage out of it.
Changing how you think about stress can actually make you healthier by changing your body response to stress. For example, when we believe stress sings, like pounding heart and faster breathing are physical changes that prepare us to perform better at a task by supplying more blood to our brain and delivering more oxygen, the way our blood vessels react shifts. When we see stress as a positive body function, our blood vessels don't contract, and on the contrary, stay relaxed, even though our heart keeps beating fast. This looks a lot like what happens when we experience joy and happiness. The reason why chronic stress is associated to heart problems is because of this blood vessel contraction. It is not healthy to have your blood vessels tight and small. But on the contrary, having fast heart beats with relaxed veins correlate with health aging.
The idea is not to get rid of stress, but to make sure we use it to our advantage. Stress is a way your body has to help you rise to a challenge. A very interesting study followed 30.000 adults for 8 years. They asked them how much stress they had experienced in the past year and they also asked how harmful they thought stress was. People who experience a lot of stress had a 43% risk of dying in the next year, but this was only true for those who believed stress was bad for them. The people who experienced a lot of stress but did not consider stress harmful had the lowest dead rate out of all the groups. Even compared to those who experienced little to no stress.
A mom’s day rarely goes by without any stress at all. It cannot be avoided, so let’s learn to manage it and embrace it.
Maite is a mom of 3, a Cognitive Neuroscience PhD, Psychologist & Education expert and owner of Neubuco LLC. She offers her knowledge of applied neuroscience to everyday life here at LH.