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Your Brain and Stress

brain1The human body and mind work to restore balance and equilibrium when forces take it out of balance.  Stress is a result of our body’s and our mind’s tension between this balance and the need to change in changing circumstances.  It is what we feel when our environment provokes a response that requires a change or when we decide that change will help us be more adaptive.  This change can therefore be both negative and positive.  Chronic stress is this presence of this tension over time.  Notice that in this description, stress can result both from influences that are encouraging us to change for the better as well as from forces that are trying to change us in ways we may not wish.  When a system is unable to resist a force to change any longer, a breaking point is reached and, in the case of the people, we get anxious , depressed, and feel that we are unable to cope.

While the human body and mind have evolved over time to manage the effects of short term stress, chronic stress is a different story and can have several negative effects on both mind and body.  Chronic stress has been linked to the onset or the worsening of various disorders including allergic skin reactions, arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic pain, heart problems, and ulcers to name a few1. Chronic stress has also been shown to have a negative effect on brain systems that are involved in memory formation, decision making & planning, creativity, as well as involvement in other neurodegenerative processes2.

The brain is susceptible to the effects of prolonged (chronic) exposure to hormones that are released by the body when undergoing stressful events.  These hormones have been shown to shrink parts of the brain associated with brain functions listed in the above paragraph.  Also, these stress hormones (although it is not just one type of brain chemical that is involved) are also involved in increasing the activity of lower emotional parts of our brains that are involved in basic responses like fight, flight or freeze, and lowering the activity of upper brain centers that we use to plan, be creative, reflect on our problems rather than react to them, and centers associated with happiness, peace and contentment.

Interestingly, the brain itself is involved in increasing or decreasing the amount of hormones released.  This is why extended practice of coping strategies, something that is strongly encouraged at this office, is so important because it is through this repeated practice of strategies that the brain reduces the release of stress related hormones and reduces the negative impact of these hormones on itself, thereby reversing the negative spiral that we experience when we can no longer manage our stress.

It is important to think of stress not as something that we need to get rid of or needs to be banished, but as something that needs to be managed.  Appreciating that anyone who has experienced burnout or other effects of chronic stress is the first to say that they want to get rid of stress, as mentioned earlier, stress is induced anytime we step out of our comfort zone and try to change, even in positive ways.  Indeed, it is widely noted that some stress is important to how our bodies function and to help us perform to the best of our ability.  The stress response allows our body to prepare for action when needed and helps our brain prepare to focus attention, act in planned and coordinated ways, and learn from the outcomes we get to better make adjustments in the future.  When chronically stressed however, the body becomes fatigued and the mind is unable to maintain focus, plan properly, and learn from experience and therefore unable to better prepare for future events.

Stress management skills are very learnable and practicable.  They can help not only manage short term stress, but can also reduce the negative effects of long term stress, and can reverse the shrinkage of the parts of the brain mentioned above, that can occur over time.

1 Stress Management: Approaches to preventing and reducing stress (2008).  Harvard Medical School Special Report. Harvard Health Publications, Boston.
2 Perlmutter, D., Villoldo, A. (2011) Chronic stress and how it can harm you .  Brain World 3(1).  International Brain Education Association, NY.


Chronic stress is debilitating and harmful condition that affects the body and mind.  Parts of the brain can start to shrink when exposed to stress related hormones over extended periods of time.  This is reversible however with learning and practicing stress management techniques.

Some signs of chronic stress:

  • Feeling depressed or helpless and sad.
  • Feeling on edge or constantly on guard.
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual.
  • Loss of sense of humour.  Things don’t make you laugh anymore.
  • Feeling irritable or quick to anger.
  • You have stopped doing things that you once enjoyed.
  • You spend much more time thinking about work or problems in you life.
  • Others have noticed that you have changed, you are not yourself, and have expressed concern.

If you experience any of these symptoms, take steps to manage stress now.  Go for walks, take deep breaths regularly, consider seeking assistance from a professional.