chronic stress women holding top of nose

The Effects of Chronic Stress on Health

Stress quite often starts with how you think. How you think has the ability to determine how you feel emotionally and physically. When your thoughts (positive or negative) generate strong emotions, neuropeptides (hormones) are released by rhw brain and then flood the emotional information to every system in your body. The neuropeptides travel through the blood and attach to every single cell that has a receptor for them to convey this information. In only a short period of time, that emotional information begins to trigger complex and subtle changes in the body. This is a great thing during acute stress, such as being chased by a tiger. That’s the body’s natural defense- fight or flight. But when this emotion persists, negative changes can arise.

When we look at someone with depression, studies show that this chronic state of emotion leads to significant health issues. Depression can lead to an increased rate of coronary artery disease, heart disease, lead to worsening of already established medical conditions, can increase pain, lead to head and body aches, digestive issues, neurological problems and may even increase the risk for developing cancer. 

Why does this happen? There’s a specific neuropeptide called a cytokine which regulates the body’s immune response. Cytokines provide a signal for the immune system to step into action after an acute event such as an infection or injury. However, if those signals remain active, the inflammation begins to damage the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease.

What gears up cytokine production? Anxiety, depression, physical stress, chronic stress, obesity, sedentary lifestyles and smoking. Over time, this sustained stress response becomes programmed into our brains by forming neural pathways. This is the brains way of short-cutting something that we do often, i.e. a habit. So the fight or flight response, that was once reserved for life threatening situations, is now an automatic response that occurs, even if we are not in imminent danger. Part of being human is being creatures of habit. You wouldn’t want to learn a bike every time you sat on one, right? Your sophisticated brain is trained to know exactly what to do in that situation. Likewise,  let’s say you have an unpleasant experience at the doctor. A neural pathway is formed so that the next time you find yourself under the care of your doctor, you elicit the stress response, your blood pressure raises (white coat hypertension), your pulse jumps, you begin to perspire and become dizzy. This has been conditioned into you from one negative experience. WOW!

The beautiful thing is, just as we learned to program this into our brains, we can program it right back out. So how do we turn off this stress response? By inducing the Relaxation Response. We’ll talk further about how to do this next time. But for now, I want you to understand that just because you have been conditioned one way, does not mean you are a victim to these circumstances. Your beautiful brain is a powerful machine and neural pathways can be changed at any time. The power lies in knowing the tools to use that can achieve lasting change.

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