#3 What happens if we are constantly stressed?


What happens when chronic stress goes unchecked? The two main players here are the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When we are presented with a stressor (stimulus), our amygdala determines if the threat is real (or perceived real) or not.  For example, if we walk into a room and the tv is on, the dog is on the couch and the remote is on the coffee table, our amygdala will receive information from our senses and let our bodies know if we are in danger.  If everything appears normal (the brain predicts subconsciously what it expects to see) nothing happens.

The amygdala

If we walk into a room, and your nephew jumps out at you and screams, in milliseconds, the amygdala hits the panic button and your body releases stress hormones. Some of these hormones are cortisol and adrenaline (discussed in a previous post).  These hormones immediately get our bodies ready to fight or flee. Now the problem is, everyday stress can trigger this response, so we can be on high alert all the time. Part of the problem is when the amygdala is sounding the alarm, our prefrontal cortex performance drops. Our prefrontal cortex is one of the parts of the brain that makes humans, well..humans. We will have a hard time making decisions, being attentive, learning, remembering, and being rational. All of these things basically reside in the prefrontal cortex.  Being able to form short term memories and be able to pay attention is inhibited during times of stress. 

Angry student

A few years ago, we had a student who had a terrible home life.  He came to school with a lot of baggage. He was having a tough day and exploded in one of his classes.  He ended up throwing a desk and hitting a teacher. After the student was removed and was able to calm down, he had no recollection of the incident.  The environmental stress that this student was under had put him in such a high level of fight or flight, his prefrontal cortex wasn’t working. That’s why he doesn’t’ remember throwing the desk.  His prefrontal cortex was so impaired, he couldn’t make the rational decision of not throwing the desk.  

We see this often in all areas of life.  For whatever reason someone is on high alert, they make poor decisions.  Road-rage is a perfect example. People behave like animals when they are driving.  No one likes being in traffic. Traffic means you will probably be late to wherever you are going, and this increases your stress level. Is this a life-threatening situation? Probably not. But the frustration is enough to put our amygdala on high alert and it shuts down our prefrontal cortex and we make poor decisions.  If someone has a lot going on and they get stuck in traffic, this might be enough to “send them over the edge” where they make the irrational decision to ram a car, swear their head off, or even pull a gun. Remember the 90’s movie “Falling Down” with Michael Douglas?

Michael Douglas in “Falling Down”

What about long term health concerns? If the brain and body stay on high alert and are continuously producing stress hormones over the long term,these are the possible consequences:

  1. Kills brain cells
  2. Forgetful and emotional
  3. Anxious-overactivated amygdala
  4. Cortisol inhibits Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor(creates new brain cells)
  5. Depletes brain chemicals (Dopamine/Serotonin)
  6. Increase risk of mental illness
  7. Shuts down prefrontal cortex
  8. Shrinks brain- hippocampus (memory center)
  9. Relaxes blood brain barrier
  10. Increase chance of Alzheimer’s and Dementia

In my next post, I will go into more detail about this list.

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