The Neurobiology Of Stress

The Neurobiology of Stress

Any form of stress (whether it’s trauma from accidents, domestic violence or abuse, combat, assault, or chronic health problems) causes the brain and body to change. Even stress from areas not commonly thought of as traumatizing, such as long-term tension in relationships or work-related strain and frustrations, can cause the brain and body to become exhausted in ways similar to trauma.

When we’re under chronic stress, neural pathways in the body and brain become accustomed to high levels of tension. This causes symptoms to arise, such as poor memory, chronic anxiety, fear or panic. Strong emotional reactions, and difficulties with thinking, making decisions, and learning new tasks can all result from too much stress, which causes the brain to freeze and its growth to stop.

Depending on the cause of the stress, symptoms can continue even when the source of the problem is removed. For example, people whose work life is difficult or unsupportive can continue to feel work-related pressures and stresses when they aren’t at work, perhaps over the weekend or even years later. Or, someone with a childhood history of abuse, or an adult who had relationship violence in the past, can suddenly find themselves struggling with the same physical, mental, and emotional symptoms they thought were behind them.

When we experience a traumatic event, the innermost or ‘reptilian’ part of the brain shifts the body into a reactive, survival mode. The sympathetic nervous system floods the body with stress hormones and the body protectively prepares to fight, flight, or freeze. The goal of counseling for stress, whether it's acute or chronic, is to teach the brain (and therefore the body and the mind) that it can ‘rewire’ itself away from the stress response, and grow neural connections for a calmer response instead.

How do we rewire the brain/body/mind to move away from the symptoms of stress and build resilient responses? We literally take the nervous system back to school by teaching the brain and the body how it can choose a calmer, more regulated response. Working together, you and I retrain your mind, body, and brain; we instruct your mind (with its thoughts and beliefs), your body (with its emotions and physical symptoms), and your brain (with its physiological fight, flight or freeze) that it doesn't have to endure the symptoms of distress, whether it’s old stress or something recent. When you learn to better control stress, brain growth returns and you feel much better!

Suggestions for Healing

In addition to psychotherapy, with its insights into what's causing stress and its impact on your body, below are some suggestions I make and strategies I offer in therapy:

* Psychotherapy helps you to reflect on where current feelings of strain and tension are coming from, and better understand how past experiences contribute to the symptoms. This combination of past and present empowers you to make different choices, so you might change the habits, people, and circumstances that cause the stress. Interestingly, this process also supports memory and has a positive impact on emotions.

* Imagery, meditation, and hypnosis helps heal stress responses. These modalities allow the brain to practice calm rest, so that new responses, reduced symptoms, and resiliency are possible.

* Aerobic exercise, which has been called miracle grow for the brain, pumps blood to the brain and helps it manage stress and depression by making cell growth and neural connections stronger.

* Weight training improves cognitive functioning by helping with decision-making, resolving conflicts, and sharpening focus.

* As with exercise, mindfulness meditation supports memory while quieting the noise from the amygdala, the emotion center in the brain. Five minutes a day of breath meditation (following your breath) helps build a sense of determination and thickens the cerebral cortex. It's a powerful workout for the brain.

* Here is a quick breathing exercise for resetting the emotion part of your brain: Breathe in for 4 counts; hold for 7 counts, then breath out for 8 counts.

You are unique, and your healing will be specific to you. There is no typical therapy or certainty for what will work, because each person requires different psychotherapy and modalities. All the same, research points out that when individuals commit themselves to practices of exploration and trying out options, over a period of time symptoms of distress can be reduced, and at times eliminated.

How Does Healing Happen?

While stress, trauma, and depression cause symptoms that can seem disastrous and feel permanent, the truth is that as long as there are no underlying medical conditions, all of these stress-related changes in the brain and body can be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. The brain can learn to relax again; memory can improve, and the body can return to an ease between reacting and restoring itself. The answer to achieving states of peace and quiet can be found in rewiring the body and brain, and changing the thoughts and beliefs we hold in our mind.

The mind, brain and body all naturally collaborate with each other, and the variety of healing practices specific to each are extensive. For example, EMDR, guided visualizations, and exposure therapies can teach the brain (and the body) to release trauma and stress while also changing your perspective. In addition, mindfulness, meditation, cognitive therapies such as CBT, and breath work all help the mind and body to work together so that both can return to balance.

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