It’s not news, at this point, that stress can cause physical, mood-related and behavioral problems in all of us. Too much of it can lead to burnout, the near-total loss of energy and interest that comes with periods of prolonged stress and over-obligation.
And with 65 percent of Americans currently citing this year as a major source of stress,1 “self-care” has become bigger business than ever before. We know we have a problem.
But we’re starting to understand that it might be a bigger problem than most of us realized – we’re learning that severe or chronic stress can actually change our brain, putting us at risk of both physical and psychological issues.
Stress can “rewire” your brain
You’re likely familiar with the term “gray matter,” or the stuff in your brain responsible for things like decision making and problem solving.
Its counterpart is less well-known; white matter is instrumental in the communication of information from one part of the brain to others. White matter gets its name from the white outer layer surrounding it, called the myelin sheath. Chronic stress causes the overproduction of myelin – slowing down and crowding out the appropriate transfer of information in your brain.
Your composition of white matter to gray matter – especially from a young age – is what can leave you vulnerable to mental illness and other related difficulties. And it’s not just stress associated with sudden, life-altering events that can have an impact: the chronic, everyday stress that so many of us just live with can be just as dangerous, causing serious consequences over time.
The real price of chronic stress
Of course, not all stress is bad. In fact, a life without any stress at all would likely be pretty boring – we experience stress in the excited nervousness we feel before a game or big presentation, for example, or before a first date with someone we really like.
Stress is simply our body’s response to a changing environment. When we’re faced with something stressful, our brains engage in various methods of assessing potential threats and keeping us functioning and safe.
The problem occurs when our bodies and brains never have a chance to come down from that stress. In studies, animals exposed to prolonged stress had less activity in parts of the brain that handle higher-order thinking – and more activity in the primitive areas that handle things like threat response.2
It’s this chronic stress that disrupts the chemical balance in your brain and has serious repercussions. Prolonged elevation of the stress hormone cortisol, for example, can actually shrink your hippocampus, the portion of your brain involved in memory, learning, and emotional processing. Cortisol is also heavily involved in modulating your sleep patterns; when that delicate balance is thrown out of whack, so is your ability to adequately rest and recover.
Prolonged stress can force your brain into a “habit system,”3 leaving you less able to make complex decisions and instead more reliant on habits and repeated behaviors that may or may not be the best way to handle a given situation.
We’re familiar, too, with serotonin, our body’s primary mood stabilizer. But here, too, stress has a significant impact – as your serotonin levels are disrupted by stress, so is your mood. This disruption can lead to depression, and its recurrent nature means that once you’ve experienced a bout of depression, you remain at an elevated risk of future episodes.
If all of that isn’t enough for you, consider this: stress is a major trigger for inflammation, which, when left unchecked, can lead to heart disease, diabetes – even cancer. Inflammatory proteins can even weasel their way into your brain through weakened protective barriers, impacting (once again) your memory and learning ability.
There’s hope for high-performers
High-performance people often spend quite a bit of time in high-stress situations. Whether you’re a competitive athlete, a C-suite executive, a busy working mom or somewhere in between, chances are, you’re spending most of your days juggling competing obligations and priorities.
And high-performers tend to be less likely to ask for help, in general, leaving them prone to suffering in silence and for longer periods. So it’s especially important for high-performers to understand the toll that chronic stress could be taking on their brains and bodies.
You might be pushing through it now, but over time, your body will make sure you take a break – whether you want to or not.
But there’s hope.
You can combat chronic stress
Avoiding all stress is impossible, but there are things you can do right away to help combat the effects of chronic stress.
Keep learning. Regular learning leads to what experts call a “cognitive reserve” that we can fall back on in times of particular difficulty. Such cognitive reserves are linked to a lower likelihood of depression in older people.4
Maintain a routine. Making fewer small decisions during the day can save a lot of mental energy and take some of your daily stress off your plate. So whether it’s eating the same breakfast every day, adopting a “uniform,” or simply waking up and going to bed at the same times, imposing regular routines can help us to manage the chaos of our days.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and maintaining regular sleep habits can go a long way toward assisting our bodies in the business of keeping us functioning at an optimal level, feeling less stressed and out of control.
Get serious about boundaries. Get your task list under control and learn how to say “no.” Understanding that our bodies and minds have natural limits and not regularly pushing ourselves beyond them is a critical part of real self-care.
Ask for help
One of the best things you can do to keep your stress levels under control is to actually ask for help.
It’s tough out there for a high-performing person! Finding a therapist who understands your unique struggles and obligations can mean the difference between suffering in silence and taking control of your daily stressors and, ultimately, your long-term wellbeing.
The clinicians at Amplify Wellness + Performance have expertise in the areas of clinical psychology, sports psychology, and executive coaching and can work with you to create a regular practice to keep your stress levels manageable.