November 23rd, 2020

2020 - The year of the unexpected: How our brains process stress

By Dan Whale

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Sleep

We don’t need to tell you that 2020 has been a year like no other. Covid-19 has obviously had a huge impact on the way we live, but it has not been the only source of stress to arise in the past 12 months.

The murder of George Flloyd sparked protests, violent clashes with police and intense debate about racism and how it should be tackled, causing high levels of distress and anger for many people. More recently, the US Presidential election has become a bitter struggle, sewing doubts over the democratic process in a way which would have seemed unthinkable 5 years ago.

It’s all been a lot to take in. If you’ve found yourself feeling more stressed this year, there have certainly been a lot of reasons to explain why. But what exactly is stress? How does it affect us? And most importantly, how can we best contain it?

What is stress?

Whilst it may not seem like it, we experience short-term stress in order to help us. When we’re stressed the fear centre of our brain activates our ‘fight-or-flight’ mode. This is an evolutionary response which enables us to fight off or flee danger.

Cortisol is released which raises our heart rate, increases glucose levels and increases blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs. We also intensify our focus on the source of the threat. For our ancestors this was vitally useful - if they were suddenly discovered by a bear, they became ‘stressed’ and their bodies were instantly primed to deal with the situation in the best way they could.

However, in modern times this response is not always so valuable. Whilst people can of course still find themselves in physical danger on a regular basis - traffic collisions and physical altercations still occur and fight or flight can be life-saving - our common ‘threats’ have become different.

An approaching work deadline, the possibility of upsetting our boss or fear of not meeting our targets are not the type of dangers that the response is designed for, but they can still trigger it. Frustratingly, we’re not able to reserve our fight or flight for physical danger, and being primed to run or attack isn’t much use here.

When we cannot use our bodies’ natural response to escape the perceived threat, we experience a range of unpleasant sensations as a consequence. These include shortness of breath, feeling jittery, sweating and an inability to focus on anything else.

How bad is stress for our health?

Stress will often lead us to feeling more irritable, more run down and make it harder for us to sleep. It can also affect our hippocampus, an area of the brain which is critical for memory, which is why trying to remember the details of a stressful event can be so difficult.

These signs make it easy for us to wonder, how much is stress affecting our health? Whilst there is some evidence that suggests even singular stressful experiences can negatively affect our hippocampus, stress only really becomes an issue for our health when it becomes ‘chronic’.

Chronic stress is experiencing your fight-or-flight response at all times, being at a constant state of high-alertness. The hormones that are key for fight-or-flight are not meant to be released for long periods and can cause digestive issues and a weakened immune system. Obesity and diabetes can also come as a result of chronic stress and mental health challenges such as depression, low self-esteem and anxiety are also possible.

This may feel like frightening reading but chronic stress can be treated and prevented.

How to best deal with everyday stress

Stress is something that affects all of us - attempting to live a stress-free life is near impossible, so don’t feel bad about getting stressed from time to time. The best thing we can do is try to get more of a handle on it before it becomes chronic.

The following methods have been proven to help us reduce the symptoms of stress.

Exercise: Stress preps your body for movement, so the best way to get rid of the unpleasantness of stress is to do just that, move. Even a 15 minute walk per day can enable us to manage the increase in stress hormones and their effect on our physiology.

Regular eating: It’s easy to skip meals where we’re stressed but this releases more adrenaline into our body and exacerbates our symptoms. Try sticking to regular meals.

Recognise your signals: Whilst certain physical symptoms are shared, people respond to stress differently. Learn what your indicators are so you can act on reducing your stress as early as possible.

Take some time to yourself: Remove yourself from others and unplug from social media. When you begin to feel stressed just focus on you. You may want to try some mindfulness techniques or go for a walk.

Deep breaths: This is a direct counter to the physical symptom of short and rapid breaths. Getting more control over your breathing can also reduce your other symptoms.

Tackle the source: You don’t have to focus solely on reducing the symptoms of stress, sometimes it is possible to get to the problem at its source. If it is something about your working environment for example, try talking to your boss. This isn’t possible for every situation, but if you can prevent what is causing you stress, you won’t need to remember any other techniques.

Treating chronic stress

When stress becomes chronic and the above suggestions are not helpful, there are other options you may want to consider.

Firstly, a talking therapy such as CBT is one of the main treatments of chronic stress. Working with a therapist can help you identify and modify ways of thinking and behaving which are contributing to chronic stress.

Medication is also an option for treating the symptoms of chronic stress. You can be prescribed antidepressants, antianxiety medication or perhaps something to help you sleep if your stress is causing insomnia.

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If you find yourself feeling stressed every now and then during this most bizarre year, try not to worry too much. It’s part of life and occasional stress won’t do you any real damage. It is something that you want to keep an eye on though.

If you find yourself becoming stressed more and more often, try the techniques we have listed above. If they do not help or you already feel past that point, don’t hesitate to get in touch. We can match you with a therapist specialising in treating stress and get you on the road to feeling more like your best Self.

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