To understand stress better, it helps to have an idea of what happens to your body in a stressed state. When we experience adversity or a potentially threatening situation, our body responds with a fight or flight reaction. The primary source of our reaction is governed by the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands release hormones that produce the hormone, cortisol, and the neurotransmitters, epinephrine and norepinephrine. As a result, our respiration and pulse increases, our muscles tense and our digestive processes slow.
Norepinephrine and epinephrine (also known as adrenalin) raises heart rate, accelerates respiration, and signals our body to release glucose to the muscles and the brain. After the initial reaction, if stress persists, epinephrine or norepinephrine levels reduce, but the body will continue producing excessive cortisol levels. This means the neurotransmitters that keep the brain alert decrease, creating a state of depression, while the rest of the body remains in a tense state. This explains why people can feel depressed and yet still experience the symptoms of anxiety at the same time. Furthermore, high cortisol levels result in weight gain and elevated blood pressure. The body will eventually break down from the pressure and disease can occur.
Aside from disease, stress does contribute to premature aging. A study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital with 5,000 women in the age range of early 40’s to late 60’s showed aging on a cellular level for those who suffered from anxiety or phobias. Our chromosomes have protective caps on the ends of them called telomere. They keep the genetic information inside the chromosomes from being damaged. However, telomeres grow shorter during the aging process. The study showed the telomeres in women with anxiety or phobias are smaller than women without persistent stress. These results show a direct correlation between mental and physical health.
Prolonged stress also has significant impact on the brain. The prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for judgment and complex decision making, diminishes with stress. Dr. Yan at SUNY (Buffalo) discovered that a certain type of receptor necessary for healthy PFC function decreases with repeated stress. This part of the brain also governs social behavior and personality. In other words, chronic stress alters our personality and weakens are social skills.
It is also known that stress slows our learning processes and our ability to remember key details. However, some memories can be overly enhanced by stress. It has been shown increased epinephrine levels heightens memory, especially those that are emotionally charged. This could explain why certain memories seem more disturbing to us and more difficult to get over during times of duress.
Raising awareness about mental health is very important. We must educate ourselves and do our part in raising awareness. The Burbank HealthCare Foundation raises money to assist in promoting good health in the Burbank area. They supply grants to nonprofit organizations and award medical scholarships every year. Visit their website to find out more about them and what you can do to help.