21 Mar Your brain on stress – what’s the matter?
You just found out that you have a history paper due tomorrow and you are playing in the state championships tonight and your girlfriend just texted that she is angry at you and wants to talk – and you know that that is going to take a looonnnggg time.
What happens next? Well, if you blow it all off and don’t care, nothing. But, if you are like many people and take all of these situations quite seriously, then you will likely have a bit of a stress reaction whereby…..
Your brain reacts: Chemicals in your brain including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released to prepare you for flight, fight or freeze.
A word about fight, flight or freeze here….
Back in caveman times, when stress occurred (a tiger chasing you) your body released these chemicals to prepare you to fight (not good odds), freeze (you’ll be tiger lunch for sure) or flight (good luck with that too).
That fight, flight or freeze reaction is still part of your body’s stress response system today. Cortisol, in particular, sets off a chain reaction that usually ends up with you:
• Not thinking clearly (yeah the brain just goes into reactive mode)
• Starting to sweat a little – loads of energy to release
• Feeling overwhelmed
When you are stressed, your brain is not functioning as well as it could be because the old part of your brain (yes, you have old and new parts to your brain) kicks in to maintain survival, and shuts down the new part, which is in charge of thinking logically, etc. That’s because anything related to your survival will take priority in your brain: your survival is number one. During survival situations, you don’t have time to think, you need to react (fight, flight, or freeze) to survive.
Stress has other effects on the brain. For one, it shrinks a part of your brain responsible for memory (the hippocampus). That’s not good for a variety of reasons. Can you think of at least one reason?
Yeah, studying. You are in school and you need to be able to remember a lot of information. So, staying stress-free is really important.
Also, when you are stressed, the new part of your brain, called the cortex, is not working so well. Learning is located in your cortex. So, when you stress about your social life, you are lessening your chances of doing well in school. Who knew?
Moreover, when you are repeatedly stressed, the brain becomes sensitized. That means that even the smallest thing can cause the chemical reactions discussed above. It’s like your brain is on hyper-alert all the time and will issue a “code red” even over something that is really not a threat at all.
What can you do to help your brain deal with stress? One thing is to become aware of what’s happening in your brain and the power you have over it.
Your brain never stops growing in response to your experiences! So, every time you face a stressful situation, you have the CHOICE to deal with it or let it stress you out. The response YOU choose, is then imbedded in your brain and it will influence your next response, and so on and so on. (You can literally convince yourself of anything, this is why brainwashing actually works!) So, now that you know what is going on in your brain when you are stressed, let’s look at what is happening to your body when you stress….
When you stress out, do you fight, flight or freeze the most?