How Stress Can Break Down Our Mind, Body, and Spirit: Part One

October 6, 2017

A stressed woman biting her first.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In her three-part series therapist and EMDR practitioner Lesley Goth explains how mental stress can negatively impact our physical and spiritual health. Click here to read part two and here to read the part three.

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. I will be focusing on the S for Stress as it seems to be the root of so much evil.

The ways our bodies and minds respond to stress are limitless and often unpredictable. Two people can experience the same traumatic event yet have different stress reactions. Why is that? Well, the brain is a tricky thing. I’m not a brain expert to say the least, but I like to write based on personal experience and the experiences of my clients as I learn so much from the work we do together.

This will be three-part blog addressing how stress—often from trauma but from our daily lives as well—affects our health and healing journeys in a mind, body and spiritual way. I’ve learned over the years just how important it is to see ourselves made up of these three major parts. They can be broken down even further, but for simplicity sake, we will keep things basic. We’ve heard for years that diet and exercise are a great remedy for stress, but did you know what we eat and how we exercise could be making our stress even worse?

This first part will address how stress affects the mind, the second part will address the body, and the final and third part will address our spirit, or as some like to call it, our heart. The truth is, we really cannot separate these parts; they overlap and affect each other all the time.

I believe we are all on a journey of healing. Depending on our age, our medical history, our trauma history and our spiritual history, we are all seeking peace, health, and comfort in our lives. The seeking may vary from person to person, but I believe as humans we are wired to grow in knowledge and understanding of who we are and what our purpose is. This often is closely tied to our health and the challenges we may face.

My personal journey started with an eating disorder in high school. It was diagnosed for a variety of reasons, but in a nut-shell, I hid it extremely well and my parents were going through a divorce, which preoccupied them from being aware. I was also avoiding life with a lot of partying and escaping. The result of my eating disorder left me with some physical issues and challenges that to this day, 30 plus years later, I’m still trying to resolve. My current life is a wee bit stressful and I say that with a lot of dripping sarcasm. At the time of this article I have two children, 20 and 17 years old, an ex-husband, a new husband, step kids, financial ups and downs, and a successful private practice that specializes in trauma. Needless to say, there is much happening on a daily basis and maintaining sanity has been challenging—thus the motivation for this article.

Let’s start at the top; the brain. First, let’s differentiate good stress from bad stress. Typically, there are two types of stress: acute and chronic. Acute stress is a reaction to an immediate threat. That threat can feel like a physical or an emotional threat. It causes our brain to go into flight, fight or freeze mode. Once the threat passes, our stress hormones return to normal and we feel okay. Sometimes acute stress revs up the brain to perform at a peak level, kind of like revving an engine before the start of a race.

Chronic stress, the kind we face daily, is what tends to cause the real damage. According to an article by Deane Alban, 90 percent of doctors’ visits are for stress-related health complaints. Chronic stress makes you more vulnerable to anything ranging from the common cold to cancer. The article goes on to say that “the non-stop elevation of stress hormones not only makes your body sick, it negatively impacts your brain as well.”

Stress has many hidden negative consequences, because it affects the brain: High chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, which creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate creates free radicals that attack brain cells in a similar way that oxygen attacks metal and creates rust.

Stress can also decrease or stop the production of new brain cells. The brain cell activity described is not what we can see so we are clueless to some of these damaging affects until we start to experience the signs and symptoms such as increased depression, cycles of anxiety and worry, increased risk of all kinds of mental illnesses, emotional dysregulation (when we feel we can cry at the drop of a hat or be fine one minute, enraged the next), increased forgetfulness, and/or basically feeling stupid.

A stressed woman biting her first.

Untitled by Serena West

Stress literally allows toxins into the brain that can shrink our brain, it can lead to higher risk of dementia and/or Alzheimer’s. Yet, according to Alban, Alzheimer’s disease is the number one health fear of American adults and the sixth leading cause of death. Stress leads to premature aging on a cellular level. As a psychologist who specializes in trauma, I’m especially interested in the part of the brain called the amygdala. It’s the area in the brain where we lose the ability to be present, and we are in fight, flight or freeze mode.

According to an article by Carolyn Gregoire from the Huffington Post, increased cortisol hampers the activity of the hippocampus (an area of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion), and it increases the size and activity of the amygdala, the brains center where we hold our unprocessed emotions, thoughts and body sensations. If stress increases the activity in this part of the brain, then that could mean we are in a heightened state of reactivity to a perceived threat. This increases our emotional reactions and decreases the ability to have rational thoughts and take in new information. It takes a lot more energy for the brain to be in flight, fight or freeze mode than to be calm and relaxed. As stated earlier, the ways in which stress affects the brain is extensive. We could go more in depth, but these are some of the common ways stress affects the brain and therefore, affects our daily lives and journey of healing.

There is no way to make recommendations as to how to manage stress and decrease the negative effects on the brain without taking in the entire mind, body, spirit approach to wellness. I will be going much more in depth in the next two parts of this blog; for now, a good place to start would be to:

  1. Reconnect to your spiritual life and belief system.
  2. Incorporate yoga and/or meditation to your exercise regime.
  3. Consult with a nutritionist who can advise you on proper nutrition and appropriate goals for mindful eating.
  4. Consult with a doctor (my preference would be an Ayurveda specialist or Naturopathic Doctor) who can/will go more in depth with proper testing and recommendations for managing stress. Checking your adrenals and cortisol levels will be important in the process of decreasing the effects of stress on the brain and body.
  5. Consult with a professional counselor who can work with you on identifying and managing your stress.
  6. Engage in a healing process that can benefit you inside and out.

As we are all on our journey of healing, we face a variety of challenges consisting of health, family, relational, financial, spiritual, and emotional experiences. The challenges increase stress, and we often can’t figure it out on our own. I encourage my clients (as well as myself) to stay open and compassionate towards ourselves as we seek support and ways to reduce our stress, and to find the peace and balance that we deserve.

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