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Dr. Joy’s Myths Busters: What is the Science Behind Stress and Health? 

 September 1, 2020

By  Dr. Joy Lasseter

Stress is not imaginary. It is not in our heads. We are not over-reacting. We can’t just make it go away. Stress is real and the prolonged effects of stress on our health can be significant.

We can normally adapt to temporary or short-term stress. With rest, we can recover and go on within one week.  But when stress is relentless over a period of time, it can be very detrimental on several levels.

Here’s the sequence: An alarm or trigger in our life occurs. The amygdala (emotional brain) sends a message to the “control center” of our brain (the hypothalamus) which is the “General” in charge of sending signals to the whole body via the nervous system. Our heart rate increases. Energy pumps into our body (adrenaline). Our oxygen level increases (deeper breathing). Our senses sharpen. We are ready to stand and fight or run and escape. When the triggering incident is over the cortisol levels drop and we return to hormonal balance.

However, during long-term stress, our body can make more cortisol than needed. This constant production can interrupt nerve synapse regulation which can cause us to withdraw from social situations and avoid interaction with others. It can also cause brain cells to die and reduces the size of the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory (prefrontal cortex). And it can make the emotional part of our brain (amygdala) more receptive to stress. There is also an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, interruption of the digestive and reproductive functions, and impairment of the immune system.

We cannot do anything about the stress triggers in our life. But we can learn to manage our stress response. We can learn not to automatically react based on our history or habits. We can walk away from angry people. Let them win the silly argument! Take a walk outside. Breathe deeply to oxygenate your blood and calm your heart rate. Physical activity will help get the circulating adrenaline out of your bloodstream. 

Don’t think about the triggering incident. That will reactivate the adrenaline pump. (Our brain doesn’t know the difference between the actual upsetting event and thinking about the event!) So forget it. Learn to master your emotions and thoughts instead. Focus on gratitude and appreciation for what you do have now that so many others don’t have. Pray, meditate, read an inspiring book, watch a funny movie. Whatever it takes, we must all find a way to stay calm for the sake of our physical and mental health! We will get through this!

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