Everyone experiences periods of stress from time to time. Triggered by daily events, it is often a passing feeling that most people are able to cope with. Even when more severe responses that last a bit longer occur, it is generally accepted as a passing experience and does not disrupt the daily course of life in a too traumatic fashion.
However, good coping skills are not always enough to get through stress events due to how they affect our ways of thinking. And when stressors last an inordinate amount of time, we are even less likely to be aware of how it is affecting us both mentally and physically. Let us highlight the relationship between stress and our thinking patterns, and how to be mindful of what processes are occurring so we can more quickly get back to normal.
How We Feel Stress
When you perceive a threat, your body releases a chemical that triggers the “fight or flight” reaction of your brain. Your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and muscles become tense. This physical reaction is involuntary and is the response we need to protect ourselves or those around us, even if the “threat” is as simple as starting a new job. These are regular occurrences that we usually recognize, thus allowing our brains to get back to functioning as it should.
But when stressors are occurring more often than what is normal, or they are more severe in nature, the more physical aspect of our responses take over, and we may not be able to mentally recognize and move forward from stress triggers as easily. Over time, this can begin to affect not only our thinking, but our health as well.
How Long-Term Stress Affects Us
Constant and consistent stressors can create chronic stress reactions, leaving your body in a heightened state of awareness that takes its toll on your brain function. The overexposure to the chemical release from stressors in your body can lead to some pretty disrupting processes. These include, but are not limited to:
- Digestive issues
- Heart disease
- Weight gain or loss
- Decreases memory and brain function
In particular, your thinking can become altered as our neural networks begin repeating behaviors without the disruption from analytical thought that we used to experience. With a repressed ability to recognize how certain behaviors, when repeated, don’t lead to changed outcomes — we fall into a rut concerning how we think.
A continual exposure to stressors, the chemicals they release, and the inability to become fully aware of detrimental thinking processes, can lead to a literal breakdown of the hippocampus in the brain. The hippocampus is the part of the brain associated with memory and regulating emotional response to stimuli. So not only does our problem solving diminish, so does our own reasoning in relation to the problems at hand.
Ways to Stop Destructive Brain Events
Luckily, there are ways to halt the onslaught of destruction your brain undergoes when exposed to high amounts of stressors. These can be as simple as going for a walk each day, or more involved, such as addressing the stress related incidents head on.
Actively Address Stressors (If Possible)
If you can address what is causing your stress directly, you may be able to find a solution to avoid continuing the downward spiral of stress-related behaviors. Even though this may create additional stress initially, in the long run it may be worth your efforts. Speak with a counselor or friends to support you in your decisions.
Diffuse Natural Essential Oils
Many essential oils naturally reduce stress responses due to their chemical makeup that trigger responses in the brain that stimulate a calming sensation, as well as clarity and mental focus. Favorites include lavender, lemongrass, vetiver, and chamomile.
Meditation has long been used to stimulate brain function, allow for body healing, and bring about a sense of peace. Start slowly with short moments of quiet during which you should practice clearing your mind and allowing thoughts to pass through without stopping to dwell on them. You also can focus on a single point, such as a picture or candle flame.
Stimulating brain function helps protect the hippocampus, and reading is an excellent way to allow your neurons to fire and function as they should as they recognize words and allow critical thinking to occur.
Keep a Regular Exercise Routine
Stimulating your body is just as important as stimulating your mind. Create a regular exercise routine to help increase blood flow and strengthen heart function, and also increases endorphins, the chemical responsible for feel good responses.
Practice Occasional Fasting
Intermittent fasting, exercise, and healthy weight loss have also been associated with a reduction in poor stress responses and support of brain function. Studies have shown a positive response to how brain cells react to stress.