In this fast-paced world, keeping up with our responsibilities and commitments can be very stressful. When these stressful situations occur regularly, it can build up and result in chronic stress. While some stress may be good for you as it keeps you prepared and ready to perform, this is true for occasional stress only. Chronic stress is bad and can lead to adverse effects, such as headaches, nausea, anxiety, depression, and chest pain. Even worse, it can take a toll on your brain functions too.
Of course, there is no way you can avoid stress, however you can now control and manage it in different ways. Technological advancement has provided us with opportunities to make it easier to manage our stress and maintain our brain health. Let’s learn about good and bad stress, the effects of stress on our brain and everyday lives and how technology can help us improve our health.
“Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body”– Arnold Schwarzenegger
Stress Impacts Us
Stress can affect both your physical and mental health. Physical symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, high blood pressure, chest pain, sexual problems, and difficulty in sleeping. Mental symptoms can be depression, panic attacks, and anxiety. Apart from impacting your overall health, stress can also take a toll on your relationships. Sometimes, stress comes into relationships due to external factors such as problems at work, issues with friends, differences in needs or wants and not giving enough time to each other.
When stress continues for a prolonged period, you may experience several physiological changes including anxious thoughts, sad feelings, and increased mood swings. Over time, chronic stress can cause your brain’s hippocampus shrink and the amygdala to grow. This negatively impacts your thought-processing, memory, and emotional control. When nothing is done to manage chronic stress, it compromises the bodily system that regulates control. Once this happens, you can feel episodes of anxiety, bad mood, and depression. It may also lead to recurring panic attacks. In more extreme situations, it’s also important to consider if professional help should be sought.
Stress impacts our body and brain at different periods of our lives. According to the Harvard Center for the Developing Child, stress-related neural circuits are malleable in childhood. This also applies to us later in our lives. This is why chronic stress in early ages adversely affects the body’s stress response system in the long run and may induce several learning, behavioral, and mental disruptions.
You may have noticed that stressors affect you not only physically but also mentally. Generally, stressors are of two types: physical and psychological. Where physical stressors are processed mainly by the brainstem and hypothalamus, the limbic system processes psychological stressors. Some common examples of physical stressors are infection or blood loss in the body. On the other hand, upsetting events like losing a loved one, increasing workload, and financial crisis are psychological stressors.
Impacts of Stress on the brain
Stress primarily affects our brain. When you stress about something, your brain initiates a response in two biological pathways to cope with the stressors: the autonomic nervous system and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. When your brain identifies a stressor, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activates and responds to it. The SNS serves as the first responder to your body’s stress by increasing alertness and vigilance against the stressor. Meanwhile, the sympathetic-adreno-medullar (SAM) axis causes your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and noradrenaline into the bloodstream.
Your body’s secondary stress response is associated with the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This region consists of the hypothalamus, adrenal cortex, and pituitary. Cortisol, a steroid hormone also known as the stress hormone, is produced in the adrenal cortex. The HPA axis connects your central nervous system to the endocrine system. Your body’s main functions, including homeostasis, are managed by the hypothalamus. It signals the release of cortisol from your adrenal glands, which then enters your brain to bind with its receptors.
To stay healthy, your body needs just the right amount of cortisol. To understand this phenomenon, let’s learn about two types of receptors present in your brain: high-affinity and low-affinity. High-affinity receptors get activated quickly with little amounts of cortisol. The hippocampus (that regulates memory and learning) and the amygdala (that controls emotions) have high-affinity receptors.
On the other hand, low-affinity receptors are activated later and need significant cortisol levels. The brain’s frontal lobe (responsible for the control) has low-affinity receptors. When only the high-affinity receptors in your brain are activated, you have improved control over your memory and emotions. However, the activation of low-affinity receptors may result in cognitive impairment, such as difficulty in remembering and learning new things.
When these receptors are activated, they cause your neurons to fire. This releases minute amounts of electricity that can be measured using electroencephalogram (EEG). The frequencies at which this electricity fluctuates are known as oscillations, or brain waves. Our brain produces five main types of brain waves – Alpha, Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Theta. Alpha waves are generally associated with peacefulness and calmness and are often present during meditation. Therefore, engaging in activities that produce more alpha waves may help reduce chronic stress.
Most people don’t know that stress is never always bad. Instead, it can be good too. Good stress, also known as eustress, occurs when your body gets aroused and ready to perform. It can occur when you get excited about something, such as your wedding, first date, or a job promotion. It can also occur when you are heavily focused on a task. Good stress is short-term and helps you to perform better in your life.
On the other hand, bad stress occurs when you are overwhelmed. This type of stress can be either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic). Acute stress is temporary and can be treated easily. However, chronic stress is the real problem. It induces severe side effects on your health, leading to insomnia, pain, less concentration, confusion, decreased performance, anxiety, and significant weight changes.
From Stress to Health
Although identifying stress is crucial to managing it effectively, it can be difficult to do so. Often, you unknowingly contribute to your stress levels each day through different behaviors, feelings, and actions. For instance, your manager assigns you loads of work that can be easily managed within the assigned deadline. Still, you find yourself worrying that you might miss the deadline. In such cases, the workload isn’t making you stressed. In fact, your repeated procrastination is the primary culprit. Thus, it all comes down to identifying the causes of stress and then managing your perceptions and reactions. By doing so, you can identify stress and take effective steps to control it. To begin, you can observe if you:
- Blame other people or elements in your environment for stressing you out
- Normalize stress and consider it a part of your life
- See stress as an inseparable aspect of your personality
- Always overlook the severity of stress
If you’re doing any of the above things, you may be contributing to your stress levels about how you perceive things. Some common sources of bad stress include:
- Relationships issues
- Monetary problems
- Unmanaged health
- Mental health problems
- Social pressure
- Racial inequities
- Death of a loved one
- A big or sudden change
- Doing something that you’re not comfortable with
Remember that these are just the most prevalent sources of stress. You may or may not experience stress from other sources as well. This is why it’s critical to observe your own anxiety triggers to identify the sources of stress. Chronic stress is bad for your overall health and although it can be difficult to avoid, you can overcome it and continue living your normal life through effective stress management techniques. When you identify your stress sources and try to overcome them, your life will ultimately become more productive, joyful, and healthier. Stress management helps bring stability into your life so you can juggle work, fun, relaxation, and relationships better. Before stress gets out of your control, you can follow different techniques that help you learn to manage it.
Meditation practices have existed for more than 5,000 years. Many people have attested its effectiveness in improving mood, raising energy levels, reducing chronic pain, and lowering anxiety and stress. A relatively simple process for meditating is:
- First, sit in a stable position and close your eyes.
- Then, breathe in and out and feel the sensations.
- Next, let your mind wander to different places.
- After a few minutes, start focusing on your breathing pattern again.
- Lastly, open your eyes gently and notice how your body feels now.
Stress Management Apps and Wearables
Today, you’ll find an incredible amount of stress management applications dedicated to providing relief from stress. These apps guide you in learning valuable techniques for stress management. For example, The Mindfulness App gives you 300+ ways to practice meditation. Personal Zen lets you play research-based games to reduce anxiety. Sanvello tracks your moods and helps you learn breathing routines to release stress.
In this modern world, wearables play a major role in monitoring brain activity to identify stress levels in humans. Brands like Google, Apple, and EMOTIV are all pioneers in the space. If you think that wearables only help identify stress and introduce stress management techniques, you’re missing out on a whole lot. Wearables can also help you balance your mental well-being. They do so by measuring your brain signals to help identify when you are stressed and how it affects your performance in everyday life.
Stress less in the Workplace
To manage stress in the workplace, here are some tips to help you take charge:
- Identify your stressors by observing those situations that lead you into a state of chronic stress. Once identified, take steps to avoid or tackle the triggers.
- Maintain a healthy perspective by telling your trusted colleagues how you feel and what issues you’re dealing with at work. Talking always helps as it releases your pent-up mental and emotional pressure.
- Engage in activities that make you happy. It could be anything, from having fun with your colleagues in the break time, reading, sketching, or simply walking outside in fresh air. Also, don’t forget to set aside time for pursuing your hobbies out of the workplace.
- Seek help from your employer or mental health professional. You can also enroll in a professional counseling program to learn some effective stress management techniques on the job. Most employers have an employee assistance program that you can take advantage of.
Neurofeedback therapy utilizes EEG to monitor real-time brain activity. A Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) can then notify people when they exhibit high levels of stress and encourage them to do a stress-relieving activity. One example to consider is EMOTIV MN8. It is a set of wireless headphones that also measures EEG. Using machine learning algorithms, MN8 can detect when you are exhibiting brain waves associated with stress. The EMOTIV MN8 uses the data collected from brain insights to formulate solutions for improved cognitive performance and stress management. The EMOTIV Brain Activity Map is compatible with EPOC and EPOC+ headsets. The superior 3D model map allows you to see a map of your mental activities in real-time. You can see how your brain performs in all the required brainwaves bands, including alpha waves.
Your Virtual Emotiv Coach
For cognitive optimization, EMOTIV also offers users a wide range of neuroscience research products. You’ll find EEG hardware tech, Brain-Computer Interface Software, and neuroscience software among its solutions. These can be applied to stress management.
Tips for Successful Stress Management
Good stress adds value to our life while bad stress erodes our joy. So, the first step to reduce stress is to identify your triggers and then work on adopting activities that help you destress. You can lower your stress levels in various ways, including meditation, stress management apps, and wearables. Remember that you have the power to improve your life when you stick to a stress-relieving routine. Here’s some tips for you:
- Accept that stress happens but try to be mindful that it will pass
- Get physical, relax and breathe slowly
- Find time for yourself and take a break
- Make time for hobbies
- Find somebody you can talk to