Thanks to the medical community, we’ve learned much about how stress affects the mind. This pressure, whether acute physical stress or mental worrying, can cause a range of problems from exhaustion to physical aches and pains. When we face a drastic increase in hardship, there is a much greater chance that the mind can develop mental issues, some of which may even become chronic over time. Below, we’ll go through some of the conditions and how stress affects the mind.
How Stress Possibly Changes the Brain
Although experts have discussed much regarding stress and how it impacts mental wellness, its actual impact on the brain itself was shrouded in much mystery.
Recently, however, there have been a few breakthroughs. It turns out that a lot of stress may actually change the brain’s makeup, resulting in more white matter in stressed-out brains, as opposed to the usual grey matter. This is relevant to mental health because it results in fewer neurons produced in the brain, which can lead to mental deficiencies and disorders. This is because while some measure of stress is expected–there is even what’s known as “good stress”–the human mind is not meant to deal with a prolonged barrage of stress on a daily basis.
What Sort of Conditions Stress Can Cause
1. Chronic Stress
It may sound a bit funny at first, but high-stress levels can lead to a more serious condition known as “chronic” stress. Among other things, chronic stress is notable for keeping a person in a nearly constant state of distress, even when there is no catalyst for this stress. As you might imagine, this can be very detrimental in the long-term, leading to other issues such as various mood disorders.
Once a person reaches this point, they’re now dealing with daily stress in addition to new mental disorders. In fact, according to the American Psychological Association, more than half of all Americans feel the effects of mental stress.
It might not seem like a depressed person is under a lot of stress because one of the physical effects is often fatigue or lethargy. However, depression is often a mental side effect of chronic stress. Stress hormones often act as sedatives, and if one is under constant stress at work or home, this sedate feeling can build until it morphs into depression. Of course, it’s okay to feel somewhat sad some of the time, but a person who feels this way habitually may have deeper mental problems related to stress.
3. Bipolar disorder
While stress does not typically cause bipolar disorder in the brain, it can easily exacerbate the condition. Stress can worsen a bipolar mood disorder once one of the depressed mood begins–which typically starts after the manic phase ends, as they “come down” from the euphoria. In fact, much study has been done regarding the links between everyday stressors and bipolar, and there are many helpful tips for managing stress when dealing with this or other mental conditions.
In addition, stress can trigger “episodes” of depression or mania in certain people with a genetic predisposition to the disorder, even if they are not actually diagnosed at the time.
Constant stress releases a stream of various chemicals into the brain, most notably cortisol and norepinephrine. Among other things, these chemicals go to work on our brains by impairing higher order thinking which leads to a host of mental issues including a lack of drive or motivation to get things done. It also affects focus, leading to an inability to complete important tasks even if we do have the motivation. Luckily, there are many researchers and just everyday people who have developed helpful ways to combat indecision which may, in turn, lead to better mental health.
Changes in Our Mental Responses
Due to changes in the brain’s production of cells, there’s a possibility that certain connections dealing with how we respond to stress are weaker than normal. This essentially means that you’ll have a more difficult time shutting off your stress and calming down–which can, in turn, increase your stress to even higher levels. Such a person may also have stronger responses than normal, which could lead to secondary health issues such as increased irritability, fewer brain cells and the like. Much of this research is new, but it provides some telling insight nonetheless.
The Good News
For feeling less stressed, it’s important to find what got you in this state. Most common reasons include work (no surprise here), family events (the death or illness of someone close), and finances. Try to figure out if something changed in your life lately. If so, you need to address the problem. You’ve gone through a divorce? Accept your new marital status, learn from your experience, and try to see the positive side. Did you lose your job? Although money may be short, you don’t need to despair. You’ll land a new job soon enough. You might have to make some sacrifices, but understand that this period will pass.
Stress doesn’t have to rule your life or change the way you see the world. While the daily grind is often going to interfere temporarily with our contentedness and well-being, it’s important to remember that we don’t have to let it win. There are a plethora of ways to combat stress and the various mental effects that come with it. The most common are:
- Working out – By exercising your body releases endorphins, which are the substances that make us feel good. Also, the stress hormones levels drop when working out
- Spend time with your loved ones – Laughing and cuddling have the same effects as working out. Kissing and having sex are other enjoyable activities which are good for your mental health
- Chew gum – As odd it may seem, there are studies that show that chewing gum is effective for stress relieving
- Try some relaxation techniques – Breathing, meditating, or yoga are some easy ways to be less stressful
- Change your food habits – Taking supplements (green tea, valerian, kava-kava) and having a low-fat diet were shown to have a positive effect on our stress levels
- Sleep – Many health problems are caused by sleeping only a few hours a night. Your brain needs the time to relax and refresh. While sleeping, your cortisol levels drop which is important for stress relieving
Some are developed by people just like you, while others come from Olympic athletes who handle stress as an everyday part of their training.
With a variety of support networks in place, you don’t have to feel like stress is taking over your life and destroying your mental fortitude. No one is alone; everyone from the ordinary to the famous deals with stress, and many are ready to offer help and tips.
Alex Moore is a health fanatic and psychology enthusiast. One of his goals is helping people take better care of themselves by using their minds as well as bodies. You’ll typically find him writing for www.schizlife.com