You’re fatigued, you awake tired, your memory is going, you struggle to sleep, you can’t live without coffee… Sound familiar?
Stress is a growing problem in the western world. Our lives are high paced, the exercise we do tends to be explosive, we’re sleep deprived and often isolated. There’s no doubt our modern social life is a long way removed from our ancestors.
All this stimulation combined with our high use of tech means our modern day lifestyle is often not congruent with our ancestral physiology. Afterall there’s no doubt we’ve evolved socially quicker than we have physiologically.
Unfortunately our brain still recognizes stress the way it was designed to…”something is trying to eat me!”
Our stress mechanisms really were only ever designed to work for short periods, it’s pretty logical really. If you were being chased by a lion, within a few hours you’d either have gotten away or been eaten.
When we compare this to our modern day lifestyles, most of our stressors are perceived, not real. In short, we worry about things that could happen rather than run from something that is happening. The biggest problem with this is we can’t escape our own thought processes.
When the stressors become prolonged the hormonal shifts can start changing the way our brain works!
Understanding how stress works
When we are threatened our flight or flight centres wind up to increase our energy and improve our alertness. When this response becomes long term, the body ramps up its response by sensitizing our cells. This is done by a hormone called cortisol.
When the brain perceives this stress state, a central area of our brain called our hypothalamus sends messages to our pituitary (our primary hormone centre) to initiate cortisol release. The pituitary then sends commands to the adrenal glands on our kidneys to release cortisol. This is where things get interesting.
This cortisol then hits an area in the temporal lobe of our brain increasing our memory, spatial awareness and navigation skills so we can better escape the threat. This area then lets the hypothalamus know that cortisol has been received and turns off the response.
When things start to go wrong
When stress becomes relentless, day after day, damage starts to occur to our temporal lobe in a specific area called the hippocampus. Most people recognize this as a loss in short term memory, a loss of visual memory, they start bumping into coffee tables and doors, struggle to get to sleep at night and get disoriented when heading into new areas.
In some people it also results in a reduce ability to naturally calm their systems down after a stressful period.
Where so many go wrong!
One of the most frustrating things I see as a practitioner is when practitioners who don’t understand this mechanism start trying to treat these people. So, here’s my top 3 mistakes I see when people with chronic stress issues are treated:
1 – They treat the cortisol dysfunction – When the goal of treatment is to treat the dysfunctional cortisol, often the result is prolonged periods of treatment that can last for months or even years! I’ve even seen in some individuals that doing this may increase their energy but make many of their other problems worse.
2 – They provide purely relaxation therapy – Whilst relation based therapy, such as meditation, is applied to people with chronic stress related conditions, it is often ineffective. This is because the myriad of brain changes often need to be rehabilitated in order to restore the stress related changes. In these individuals, simply moving away from stress may not be enough to improve these changes
3 – They fail to treat the brain – The brain is often damaged in long term stress related issues. Not only will this effect areas such as your memory, but it can affect your circadian rhythms and sleep, mental health and even your injury rates with exercise.
Where to start?
Dealing with chronic stress is a complexed issue that often requires a structured solution. A thorough assessment of you brain, brain stem and physiology is often required to formulate an effective and safe method of correcting your problems and restoring you to good health.