Illustration by Sophia Shrand

We live in “an overstressed nation.” According to American Psychological Association 2010 Stress in America Findings, the source of this stress is related to the recent recession.

Feeling the effects of prolonged financial and other recession-related difficulties, Americans are struggling to balance work and home life and make time to engage in healthy behaviors, with stress not only taking a toll on their personal physical health, but also affecting the emotional and physical well-being of their families.

 American Psychological Association 2010

What are the effects of prolonged financial and other recession-related difficulties? What does it mean and how do you balance work and home life, and in what order? How do you make time to engage in healthy behaviors and what are they? How do we prevent stress taking a toll on our personal physical health? And how do we heal and prevent damage to the emotional and physical well-being of our families?

 Over the next few weeks I will address each of these important questions raised by the Stress in America study.  Today we start by looking at the physiological impact on our brain and body by stress such as  "prolonged financial and other recession-related difficulties."

Stress is not new to any of us.  Like our ancestors ancestors we have to get food, shelter, and find a mate.   To do these things we have to stay alive. Our ancestors ancestors often had to avoid being prey. Survival often depended on an ability to rapidly mobilize resources in our body to either run away or stand and fight. Natural Selection began to favor ancestors whose brains and bodies adapted better survival mechanisms than other animals.

Illustration by Sophia Shrand

 When our brains perceived a danger, it sent a warning which was received by the adrenal glands, two almond shaped structures on top of our kidneys.  In response, the adrenal glands produced and sent out a hormone called cortisol which travelled rapidly all around the body.  The results were so successful in helping our ancestors survive our brains and bodies respond to stress practically the same way. Even today, when faced with stress our breathing changes to take in more oxygen. Our heart rate increases to faster move blood and the energy it contains. More of that blood is diverted to our arms and legs, and away from our gut and skin. The results:

 Muscle tension: Get ready for fight or flight.

 Stomach problems: Why waste energy on digesting food when we are worried about becoming food.

 The cold sweats: cool our skin down in case we have to run for a long time to reach safety.

But there are hidden changes as well. Our blood pressure goes up in response to the increase flow of blood from a faster heart. Our immune system mobilizes in case we get an injury and need to fight off microscopic predators. Our blood prepares to clot faster if we get an injury that may compromise our blood supply. And our brain begins to demand more energy so we can try to find a solution to this imminent survival threat. To get this energy the brain sends out a signal to the rest of the body, ordering it to suppress insulin. Insulin is our natural sugar boat, transporting glucose into cells all over the body. Under stress, those number of those transport molecules decreases, leaving more sugars to flow through the blood to our hungry, stressed and overdriven brain.

For the acute stress our ancestors experienced this makes great survival sense. In the immediacy of life or death there is only one problem to solve: stay alive.  Once the stress was done, our bodies returned to a less cortisol driven homeostasis. But under chronic stress, like an economic recession, our bodies stay on high alert as if there were a saber tooth tiger around every corner.  The stress of not knowing how to pay the bills has an effect on our physical health and our bodies can become flooded with cortisol.  This may explain the increase in problems now well known to "modern" men and women:

Under chronic stress:

Our heart rate remains high, as does our blood pressure. 

We can get indigestion leading to ulcers and other stomach and intestine problems.    On high alert our immune systems may become hypersensitive to the environment resulting in “allergies” or breathing problems. We are at higher risk of blood clots, and therefore heart attacks and strokes. And the suppression of insulin may lead to Type 2 diabetes.  In addition, if the body thinks it is always in survival mode, it tries to store energy for the future in the form of fat, anticipating famine and a limit of nutrients.

But there is a more insidious impact of stress on our brain. Last week I spoke about stressed-out fish having difficulty learning how to navigate a maze, and really stressed out fish not even trying to solve that problem. (Effects of stress and motivation on performing a spatial task. Wood LS, Desjardins JK, Fernald RD. Neurobiol Learn Mem. 2010 Dec 9.) The implication of this finding in humans is profound: stress itself may interfere with our ability to solve problems, or even to learn, perhaps due to increased levels of cortisol.

One of the effects of prolonged financial and other recession-related difficulties may be to impede problem solving and learning.

The stress of being in a recession itself may be making it difficult to think our way out of this economic maze.

Stress is well known to be associated with all these unhealthy changes in our brain and body.  And even though the Stress in America Study was looking at recession-related difficulties, we live in a world teeming with chronic stress.

How do we out-think stress? If everyone remains focused on relieving their own stress, then we remain in competition for food, shelter, and the ability to mate. If my brain is doing this, everyone's brain is doing this, trying to ameliroate stress at the exepnse of another. We contribute to each other's stress in our attempt to relieve our own. 

But what if we do something different?  What if we realize that it is actually the other person's attempt to get rid of their stress that can contribute to mine. What if we recognize that it is not always my stress that gets in the way of success, but very often someone else's stress that gets in the way of my success. 

This leads to a very interesting and different approach to stress management and reduction:  When we ameliorate another persons stress we can reduce our own stress as well. 

 Any ideas from my readers? If so, please share your comments. Let’s get together on this one and begin to use our combined brain-power to out-think stress. And please come back in a few days to read the next part of this blog:

Part 2: Stress goes up when money goes down.

About the Author

Joe Shrand, M.D.

Joe Shrand, M.D., is an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

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