Stress on the Brain!
Understanding how our BRAINS deal with stress and anxiety!
Getting to know the parts of your brain!
Before we start looking at how the brain plays a role in our stress response, we need to understand the parts that come into play!
This is the storage and memory system for the brain. It helps decide whether a problem or situation is an immediate danger (and needs to be dealt with by the amygdala!), or if it’s something that the Pre-Frontal Cortex can handle!
The Pre-Frontal Cortex
This part of our brain is able to handle more In-depth problem solving, analysis, and critical thinking! This part of our brain is literally referred to as the “thinking brain” and helps us solve problems!
Try to think of the AMYGDALA as our brain’s early warning system or “spidey-sense” if you will. It tells the body that we are in IMMEDIATE danger, and must act FAST!
Think of the amygdala as similar to the safety systems in your car. It senses danger, and intervenes when needed without ever asking the driver! In a similar way, the Amygdala "hijacks" the brain (takes over!) when it thinks your survival might be in jeopardy!
The Amygdala doesn’t have time to rationally think out solutions to a problem like the Pre-Frontal Cortex would. Instead, it causes us to react in one of three ways:
- FLIGHT (RUN AWAY)
- FREEZE (HIDE!)
The Amygdala in Action!
Instead, our brains evolved over time to help give us a way to respond to these threats IMMEDIATELY and stay alive!
Old Brain in a New World
In today’s modern world however, we aren’t exactly facing threats from tigers or other predators trying to eat us! Yet that same part of our brains still exists and works the same way!
The problem is that in today's world, the AMYGDALA now sees daily STRESSORS as a type of "threat".
Things such as homework, friendship issues, or arguments with parents can activate your brain’s threat response system!!
Fighting "Invisible" Tigers
To make matters worse, today’s stressful situations can often be repetitive and sometimes constant! Our brains weren't designed for this, and it can wreck havoc on our bodies and our well being!
Even though we are not in immediate life or death situations – our AMYGDALA is constantly getting activated! Pop Math Quiz! Oh no, danger! Your friend just sent a mean message on Snapchat?! Oh no, danger!
All of a sudden, your brain's amygdala is seeing these "invisible" tigers everywhere and trying to respond to the threat/stress.
This situation is what leads us to experience ANXIETY!
Anxiety is the feeling of a perceived “threat” or fear that we can’t really fight or even run away from! It's when you feel uncomfortable, worried, on edge or just plain stuck!
So what does an overloaded amygdala do to our bodies??
◦Just like thousands of years ago, our bodies still react to perceived threats to prepare us to survive! Whether a real or "imaginary" tiger, our bodies are going to react in exactly the same way!
◦-Our hearts will beat faster (To help us run away!)
◦-Our muscles will tense up (To prepare us to fight!)
◦-We can even start sweating (To help cool our bodies down!)
◦While this would all be great if we were fighting off an attacker or wild animal, it’s NOT the response you want when you are sitting in class taking a Science quiz!
So how can understanding the BRAIN help me deal with all this stress and anxiety!?
Remember, when you start getting that uneasy feeling of ANXIETY or WORRY, remember that you are not actually in immediate physical danger.
It is simply your brain’s AMYGDALA going into overdrive! The amygdala has "hijacked" your brain, because it thinks it needs to save you!
Sometimes this “OLD” part of the brain gets confused about how much actual danger you are in!
Remind yourself that the brain is just overreacting and this is causing some of the physical symptoms of anxiety like feeling sweaty or jittery.
The rest of the brain to the rescue!
The Role of the Hippocampus
This storage center of the brain can remember what events and situations in the past were ACTUAL dangers and can tell your brain to basically “stand down” when it remembers that something is not a real threat.
Sometimes it can be helpful to replay situations from your past to calm your amygdala’s overreaction.
◦Think of the last time you failed a test?
Was it really the worst thing in the entire world? No of course not.
Were you able to pull your grade up eventually? Yes of course.
Do you actually need to PANIC! No.
Already, by taking a moment to have this internal conversation, your brain starts moving the sensory input (the thing that may be stressing you out) over to the Pre-Frontal Cortex to help look for real world solutions!
The Role of the Pre-Frontal Cortex
◦Sometimes the “thinking” part of your brain can be very helpful to calm an over reaction from the amygdala.
Once the hippocampus determines that something isn't an actual threat, and that your amygdala can "stand down", it will send that information over to the PFC to be dealt with. The PFC is able to rationally look at a problem, break it down into its components, and explore solutions.
The first step to overcoming stress and anxiety is understanding what's happening. When you start experiencing anxiety – simply label it in your mind as a response that your amygdala had.
Recall that your body is experiencing physical symptoms as a part of this NATURAL process.
Remind yourself that there is nothing physically wrong.
At this point, it's time to start exploring solutions to help make yourself feel better. One of the first steps to de-escalating anxiety is to address the physical symptoms such as elevated breathing.
Breathing exercises are extremely effective in calming your body's stress response!
The video below gives a nice example of a simple breathing exercise that you can try at home!
Video Summary of Today's Lesson
What to think about over the next week?
Take some time to notice what the stressors in your own environment are?
How does YOUR body react to stress? What symptoms do you experience when you are feeling stressed out?
How you cope (or deal) with stress when it occurs?
- Are the ways that you deal with stress healthy, or perhaps unhealthy?
Next week, you will learn more ways to help you deal with stress and anxiety in a healthy way!