Stress is in all our lives. It’s designed for those threatening occasions when one is jolted out of a deep sleep in the wee hours of the night and must roll out of bed and investigate. Initially, the stress hormones norepinephrine and epinephrine burst into the system, followed by the release of cortisol.
In situations of fight or flight, the accelerated heart rate, the tensing of the muscles, the hyperawareness of tell-tale signs of trespass are survival mechanisms that have paid dividends from the days of our dinosaur forebears. Stress in such a form might motivate in the face of difficulties.
However, if life becomes one successive crisis after another, the continuous flow of cortisol into one’s system can cause lowered immune function, obesity, high blood pressure, insomnia, heart disease, stroke, depression, anxiety, advanced aging, dementia and death.
A 2015 study in “Frontiers in Psychology” surveyed students in two elite East Coast high schools and discovered half the students reported feeling "a great deal of stress" daily. The study ventured to say that "chronic stress" is a "cultural currency" in highly competitive private schools.
Unfortunately, for these students there is added bad news: stress reduces brain capacity and contributes to bad decisions.
Sadly, research from the American Psychological Association in 2013 noted 75% of employees are stressed by "at least" one thing every week and a third was stressed "to the extreme." Worse, 83% had no idea how to deal with stress or even considered it to be a serious problem. It is.
There are two brain systems at work in each of us: the "higher brain" (the prefrontal cortex), and the "lower brain" (the amygdala). Most of human intelligence emanates from the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for art, science, engineering — higher order thinking. The amygdala, on the other hand, cannot determine real or present danger, is reactive, not analytical, and serves as a repository for emotional memory.
If the amygdala associates something in the present with a past traumatic memory, it will set off the stress mechanism. This is seen in the workings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): the ever-watching amygdala is storing all sorts of information about what is happening around us, especially in psychologically overwhelming environments like war, and something, anything we venture into in the present might produce distress.
To complicate matters, more studies indicate that some of us are more genetically predisposed to stress, meaning two students in the same class performing the same work in comparable conditions might produce one student distressed and overwhelmed, while the other is well adjusted, fully engaged and is breezing through the class.
The good news: no matter our predisposition to distress, is there are things we can do to counter stress and its deadly doses of cortisol. Changing one’s attitude can physically change the structure of one’s brain over time (and a marked change can take place over months, not years). Additionally, one needs to be aware what sparks psychological fears. Stem the fear and the stress will be eliminated.
Don Joseph Goewey’s "The End of Stress, Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain," is one guide in gaining control over distress. It teaches how to build awareness of stress patterns and then suggests specific principles to facilitate brain change. It also supplies an array of tools to use in practicing a more stress-free, productive life.
Should one wish to mitigate years of cortisol’s damage to the body and brain, absorption of curcumin, either in foods such as curry, or through supplements, actually rebuilds brain cells, according to dozens of research findings in peer reviewed literature.
To counter excess cortisol build-up, get some fresh air, exercise, laugh with a friend, have some decaffeinated green tea, eat some dark chocolate, listen to Bach, or just do something mindless.
The point is, do not let stress command your life — it can kill you. While a jolt to action is sometimes necessary, it’s best to plan, execute and act. If the outcome is unsatisfactory, breathe deeply, stay calm and adjust. The best decisions emanate from an unstressed brain.
Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.