Stress is not always a bad thing when experienced in the right amounts and at the right time, it can actually help you to effectively achieve certain goals or perform certain tasks more effectively. However, when your brain starts to experience continuous, unregulated levels of stress, that’s when the problems begin, with stress effectively changing the structure and functioning of your brain, and more insidiously, your everyday functioning.
Chronic stress (for example, the kind of stress caused by consistent feuds in your relationship or high levels of stress in your work life) is much more insidious than most people realise, affecting not just the way you feel, but also: your brain size, how your brain works, and its actual structure and size.
Understanding stress and the brain:
Your brain’s reaction to stress starts in the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis) – a network that also affects your body’s digestion, immune system, your moods, your emotions, and your sexuality. Your HPA axis is activated as soon as your brain identifies a stressful situation. This leads to the secretion of cortisol (also known as the stress hormone), which gets your body ready for immediate action. The problem comes in when high levels of cortisol are activated in your brain over an extended period of time – this is when stress starts to actively change the structure, and functioning, of your brain. A consistent increase in cortisol directly affects the functioning of the hippocampus in your brain – the part of the brain that is responsible for learning, memories and stress control, and directly affects the HPA axis’ functioning, weakening its effectiveness, which means that your body can no longer regulate your responses to stress.
A recent article published online by IOL states that:
“Work remains one of the leading drivers of stress-related illnesses among South African professionals, according to the 2017 Profmed Stress Index.
The index, which is compiled from responses by nearly 3 000 of Profmed’s professional membership base, revealed that apart from financial stresses, 45.5% of respondents still saw work as the biggest contributor to stress in their lives.”
The 2017 Profmed Stress Index* survey also found that 10% of respondents admitted that they had, in the last six months, taken time off work due to stress.
Now that we know how dangerous stress is, and how scarily pervasive it is, what are the steps that we can take to manage it?
- Exercise – The Profmed Stress Index revealed that a whopping 41.6% of respondents reported that exercise helped them to manage their levels of stress.
This is because exercise releases a ‘feel-good’ chemical in your brain, known as endorphins. It also increases the production of serotonin, which aids good health, and improves mental well-being.
- Eat well – Putting the right foods in your body is an important factor to reducing stress, improving brain functioning, and increasing overall health.
- Getting enough sleep – a good night’s rest helps to ensure that you are fully equipped to handle the tasks of the day ahead. If you are well rested, you are less likely to be irritable and moody, and more likely to be focused
- Take a deep breath – By practicing awareness of your breath, you automatically disconnect from the worrying thoughts in your mind, as you turn your attention to something else. Taking deep, slow inhalations and exhalations in a time of great stress can help to calm you down physically and mentally
So, if you’re feeling stressed, it’s important to know that you are not alone, and that there are steps you can take to ensure that you get onto the right track.
* The Stress Index is an effective way of gathering data to help Profmed understand the evolving issues facing graduate professionals. This data can then be used to develop informed educational programmes to help people manage their stress and general levels of health.
Profmed is a restricted medical aid scheme that is open to professionals who have obtained a postgraduate qualification. Profmed offers these individuals exclusive yet affordable medical cover. The company’s vision is to address the healthcare needs of professionals through appropriate and comprehensive benefit design. For more information, please visit www.profmed.co.za or follow Profmed on Facebook.