#4 Prolonged Exposure to Stress Hormones

The brain
Hamster wheel

What happens when we can’t turn the noise down? What if we are consistently spinning the proverbial hamster wheel? There are some severe consequences if we can’t keep our stress hormones in check. If you look at the quote from my first post “90% of all doctors visits are stress related”, you can probably start connecting some dots. I am not sure if these happen in particular order, but I think you might be able to relate to some of these.

Alters/Interferes with Brain Function

Neurons in the brain.

If we are constantly stressed, we are consistently producing stress hormones. This can lead to the death of brain cells. Cortisol will lead to the production of free radicals in the brain. Free radicals are basically little bullets that are hitting and destroying brain cells.

Stops new brain cells. Not only will the cortisol help kill brain cells, it also interferes with the production of new ones. Cortisol will inhibit Brain Derived Notrophic Factor(BDNF). BDNF is vital in the formation of new brain cells.

Inhibits rational decisions. We have the fight or flight response to help us in dire situations. One of the trade-offs that we make, is that our prefrontal cortex shuts down (remember the student throwing the desk from the last post?). This is because it is more important to divert our energy to fighting off a bear than it is solve a math problem.

Memory

Cortisol interferes with memory formation. Since stress can lead to a decrease in the number of cells, it shouldn’t be a surprise then that stress can lead to a reduction in brain size. Especially the hippocampus. This is where a see a lot of problems in my occupation. So many of my students are dealing with so many stressors, they have a real hard time learning and remembering what we did in class. If a student is worried about where their next meal is coming from, they will have a hard time paying attention. Then you couple this with not getting enough sleep because they are worried at night, memory and attention will suffer.

Excess cortisol depletes other neurotransmitters. Stress can lead to a decrease in the production of Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for behavior and rewards. Let’s say you have set a goal to run your first 5km race. You lay out a plan and start training for it. After a few months of sticking to your plan, you run the race and you finish. Not only did you finish, but you ran it faster than you ever thought you could. Hellllllooooooo dopamine! Getting a win (even a small one), will increase the amount of dopamine. Now that you have accomplished something, dopamine will reinforce the behaviors that allowed you to be successful( sleep, eating right, training). This can be a huge carry over and motivate you to keep training. Success breeds success.

Serotonin is the hormone that is involved in our mood, social behavior, memory and learning and sleep. If serotonin levels start to drop , it can impact these areas of our lives.

Dominos

He is an example. If serotonin levels are low, maybe it starts to impact your sleep. This makes you more tired and you have problems staying focused at school or at work. Then, you start missing key parts to what you should be focusing on. Now, you start to worry (triggers stress response) about performing. More stress hormones are released, which lowers your dopamine and serotonin even more, killing your motivation to get caught up. Now you are stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Hopefully you are starting to see the connections and that it is never “one thing”. There are a billion different scenarios that can play off one another that can cause problems. It is all connected and there are so many ways this can unfold.

Next post, we will look at impacts on the body.

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Thank you for reading.

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