In the early 1900s, Harvard researcher, Walter Bradford Cannon, coined the phrase, “Fight or flight response.” It meant that when we perceive a threat, real or not, we either stay and fight or we run. More than thirty years later, in 1936 Dr. Hans Selye popularized the word ‘stress’ and divided it into three parts:
- An alarm reaction where the body prepares itself for fight or flight
- Since the body cannot maintain the high alert, it builds a resistance to stress
- After resisting the stress for so long, the body enters a stage of exhaustion
Fast forward to the last twenty years and Stanford Professor, Dr. Robert Sapolsky, writes a book entitled, “Why zebras don’t get ulcers.” As a primatologist and professor of neuro-science, Dr. Sapolsky expanded the study of stress from disturbing the homeostasis in the body (putting the body off balance), to where it all begins and ends , in the human brain.
The answer to the question of why zebras don’t get ulcers is that zebras (and all other animals) will go into the state of stress when they are threatened. Should a lion gallop towards a zebra, intent on landing a good meal, the zebra will immediately feel the stress and act upon it. The thing that separates us from zebras is that even if the lion is not after us, we can conjure up scenarios of imminent doom in our human brains. We are capable of imagining lions that aren’t even around. In our case, the danger that can produce the stress response in us may not be a lion, but a job interview, an ill friend, or a 30 year mortgage. According to Sapolsky, “We human beings…can think about the lion or any other imagined threat whenever we want to. So long as man has had a prefrontal cortex (and we’re talking millions of years here), he has been capable of imagining threats that aren’t there.
Although stress affects our bodies and our minds, it all begins in the brain, with a hormone called Cortisol, which is a primer for action. The more stress you experience, whether it’s imagined or real, stress from worry, overworking, impending doctor’s appointment, or family get together, the more Cortisol is released. The first part of your brain that is affected is called the amygdala, which serves as the fear receptor and which primes you for action. Cortisol increases the number of ‘fear’ neurons. Therefore, as Coritsol levels rise, and continues to inhabit your amygdala, your ability to handle whatever you think is going to happen is decreased, as your decision making powers are compromised.
The Cortisol then sends electrical signals into the hippocampus of your brain, which controls learning, decision making and concentration. This leads to a weakening of your power to handle the stress that is causing all the problems. If that’s not enough, Cortisol can actually cause your brain to shrink. This shrinkage causes the loss of synapses of neurons in your pre-frontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls judgment, concentration, decision making and social interaction.
Why is it so important to know all this scientific information about stress and the brain? With the busy lives we lead today, we may continue to make judgments and decisions that can be life-changing. Are we making them from a healthy mindset, or one riddled with stress hormones that affect our thinking? Is there unrecognized stress living in our brains that will ultimately affect our physical health as well?
Remember, stress can affect judgment. What if you are driving on a two lane road, deciding whether to stay behind the slower driver in your lane or speed up and pass the car before oncoming traffic gets you. Judgment matters. Stress can affect concentration. Wouldn’t you want to be able to concentrate on the test questions before you, knowing a good grade will get you into the school or job you have always wanted? Stress affects decision making. Don’t you want to make a stress free decision about your marriage or job or the next home or car you buy? Stress even affects social interaction. Lashing out at someone because you are stressed has the potential of ruining even long term relationships. Knowing you are operating from a stressed or stress free brain is of the utmost importance.
How fortunate we are to be able to use technology to monitor stress levels and do something about the conditions before we experience what may be lasting effects. That’s what the WellBe bracelet does. Knowing you have an important decision to make, isn’t it great to be able to test your stress level before going into that meeting and maybe taking 5 minutes to calm down, become mindful and get back to homeostasis, that word you learned in high school that means balance.
Stress is inevitable. Continued, long term stress is treatable. Learn the signs, know when it’s time to get quiet and make stress free decisions about your life.
Dr. Marcia Hootman