Since its back to school season, it can be a stressful time for kids, teens, and the adults. This transition often involves various challenges, such as adjusting to a new academic year, meeting new teachers or classmates, managing increased workloads, and adapting to a more structured routine. Students and even parents may experience stress as they navigate these changes. While we may not always think of it, stress is not just a figurative or loose term, and there is actual science and brain chemistry that is involved!
The science of stress: what happens to our brain when we feel stressed?
When we experience stress, our brains undergo changes which are a part of the body’s natural response to perceived threats or challenges. Here’s a simple explanation:
- Activation of the Amygdala: The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the brain, plays a key role in processing emotions, including fear and stress. When we encounter something that makes us feel stressed, a “stressor,” the amygdala sends signals to other parts of the brain, triggering the “fight or flight” response.
- Release of stress hormones: The brain signals the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, from the adrenal glands. These hormones prepare the body to respond to the stressor by increasing heart rate, sharpening focus and boosting energy levels. These are the symptoms we often experience when we are feeling stressed.
The effects of stress
Stress can have a profound impact on the body, affecting various systems and contributing to both short-term and long-term health issues.
Stress can affect the hippocampus, a region of the brain which is crucial for memory and learning Chronic stress may lead to changes in the structure of the hippocampus, potentially impacting our ability to form and retrieve memories.
Stress can influence the emotional centers of the brain, leading to feelings of anxiety, irritability, or even a sense of being overwhelmed. This emotional response is part of the body’s adaptive mechanism to deal with potential threats.
Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for immediate solutions. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But overtime, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
But…stress can be a good thing!
Stress isn’t always a negative; in fact, short-term stress reactions can be beneficial in certain situations and have many wonderful attributes. The positive aspect of stress is often referred to as “eustress” or “positive stress.” stress enhances brain power by promoting neurotrophin production and strengthening neural connections, as seen in the impact of exercise on productivity. Studies such as a 2017 review in EXCLI journal, suggest that stress can improve short-term memory, especially useful in situations like exams.
Furthermore, in the short term, stress prepares the body for potential injury or infection by producing extra interleukins, supporting temporary immunity, as explained by Dr Shelton. Dealing with stress can build resilience, where repeated exposure fosters both physical and psychological control, preventing shutdown in high pressure situations.
Stress can also serve as a motivational force, particularly in the workplace. Deadlines, for instance, stimulate effective and rapid behavior, aiding in managing situations more productively. The crucial perspective involves viewing stressful situations as challenges that can be met, rather than insurmountable obstacles.
It’s important to note that while acute stress can be normal and adaptive, chronic stress (prolonged exposure to things that make us stressed) can have a negative effect on both mental and physical health. Managing stress through various technique, such as mindfulness, exercise and social support can help mitigate its negative impact.