Stress has been a part of the human condition since the dawn of mankind, and at its core is essential to survival. When an unexpected, potentially harmful event triggers the “fight or flight” response, we’re able to make quick decisions about what to do in order to get out of the situation and resume normal stability.
Constant stress, however, brings with it a host of physical and psychological problems that, if not treated, will diminish one’s quality of life. Our modern society is full of stress triggers, and the immersive qualities of technology mean that the pressures of everyday existence are rarely “turned off.”
On this episode of Kentucky Health, Dr. Wayne Tuckson speaks with a University of Louisville counselor about how stress affects the human mind and body, and also about the best practices for relieving stress.
Dr. Quinn T. Chipley, MA, MD, Ph.D., is the counseling coordinator with the Health Science Center at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine. He explains that stress is, by definition, the amount of force placed upon a system – whether it’s a constant stream of traffic over a suspension bridge or a flow of emotionally intense experiences affecting the human brain.
A certain amount of stress on the human psyche is normal, Chipley says, as long as it is temporary. Periodic stress may make us mentally and physically stronger in terms of being able to respond to major life events, but Shipley says constant stress burdens our psychological state and leads to permanent anxiety and/or depression.
The Origins and Function of Stress
“The ability to recognize a potential stressor in the environment is crucial,” Chipley says. “That’s one of the reasons we have a part of our brain – the older part of our brain – which is always scanning for the possibilities that there might be danger, or that there also may be opportunities.”
This “fight or flight” response, Chipley says, arises from the limbic system, a collection of structures in the middle of the brain that control many essential biological tasks as well as memory formation.
Chipley explains that when a stressful event occurs, the “fight or flight” response will quickly trigger a release of the hormone adrenaline. “The adrenaline causes a much bigger uptake of our blood sugar to go into our cells to prepare us to either move or fight.” On more extended time frame, the brain also releases a hormone called cortisol releasing factor. This causes increased production of the steroid hormone cortisol, which then “prepares the body to withstand certain kinds of stressors over a longer period of time,” Chipley says.
“The cortisol response is important and can be good – it’s just that if it keeps being activated for an extended period of time, it becomes somewhat destructive,” he adds. “Cortisol is not real friendly to areas of the brain, it doesn’t play well with our insulin cycle, and so it has some problems along the way.”
Continuously elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance, lowered immune system response, elevated blood pressure, and other harmful conditions. On the psychological side, existing in a state of heightened sensitivity without reprieve can alter a person’s mental outlook to the point where the normal checks on anxiety – which originate from the cerebral cortex – are ineffective.
Chipley recalls a saying of one of his favorite instructors in medical school: “Ninety percent of the brain is intended to tell you ‘no.” “Most of our brain is inhibitory; it’s supposed to be inhibitory,” he adds, but he says that constant stress erodes this ability to self-regulate and calm down.
Tips for Relieving Stress
Chipley has two major points of advice for people who want to reduce everyday stress and live a more relaxed and productive life. First, he says that cardiovascular exercise is an excellent way to promote better mind-body connection. According to Chipley, studies have shown that having a strong cardiovascular capacity – being able to elevate the heart and respiration rate to twice their norm, relative to age – helps to reduce stress. “When people stay in those zones for a period of time, we actually see a relaxation effect occur,” he says.
This happens because blood vessels in a person’s skeletal muscles expand during high cardiovascular exercise, reducing blood pressure and expanding the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the main connector nerve between various parts of the body and the brain, affecting many essential (and often involuntary) organ and muscle functions. “If you can exercise for 20 minutes time, being in that zone, about three or four times a week…controlled studies indicate that it is the strongest prophylaxis, which means prevention, of anxiety and the strongest treatment for anxiety that we have, including our best medicines, which are still good.”
Secondly, Chipley recommends for overstressed people to take what he calls a “micro-respite.” He says that he often works with resident physicians at U of L who have very little downtime due to school and work pressures. He tells them to take a few minutes each day, find an area such as an open door frame with space, and perform stretching and breathing exercises. He explains that stretching muscles creates tension, which then sends signals to the brain that in turn create a relaxation response signaling back from the brain to the body.
“So stretching actually induces relaxation,” Chipley says. He also adds a bonus tip: “If you can get out of the building for five minutes, if you’re in a sedentary office job, walk around the building in good weather – or even if it’s raining, take an umbrella. A change of environment changes what we’re perceiving, and that will change stressors as well.”