Monday, September 16, 2013

Stress and the Brain - The Basic Neuroscience of Stress

The stress response begins with our interpretation of events - our appraisals, our perceptions, our thoughts, all of which are different words for the same concept. For instance, if you call a close friend and don't get a return phone call after two days you could conclude that your friend is busy or didn't get the message. This thought process is unlikely to be experienced as stressful. If, on the other hand, you conclude that your friend hasn't returned the call because they no longer like you, this experience of rejection is likely to be stressful. This is an example of a social-emotional stress. The importance of interpretation on the impact of stress applies to all kinds of stressors including ones that have an environmental origin. If you hear a loud noise outside and conclude it is that old car back firing again, you would likely have a much less stressful reaction than if you conclude that the noise was a gun firing.

How we interpret or think about events is only part of the complex equation that defines human reactions to stress. The brain also plays a crucial role in the feedback between mind, body and brain.

The experience of stress is first experienced in an area of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is a small almond shaped structure located deep in the brain that is associated with stress, anxiety, fear and aggression. It is like an alarm bell that goes off in response to events that are interpreted as threatening thus initiating a cascade of events including:

                The thalamus, a relay station for sensory information, sends a message to
                the brain stem, which connects the brain and the spinal cord. The brain
                stem then releases norepinephrine which then stimulates the brain and body
                for flight or fight.

                The activating part of the nervous system, the sympathetic branch, readies the
                organs and muscles in the body for the fight or flight response (to with fight
                off the threat or flee).

                The hypothalamus, which regulates basic drives such as hunger and sex, signals
                the pituitary gland to release adrenaline to rev up the body, and cortisol which
                reduces inflammation.

Now, the body is energized and ready for action - heart rate increases, pupils dilate, blood is directed to the large muscles, and lungs prepare for increased oxygen exchange. The increased cortisol magnifies the stress response by activating the amygdala even more which sends out more cortisol. Cortisol also decreases the activity of the hippocampus, an internal brain structure that helps not only detect threats but forms new memories. Thus, memory formation is disrupted.

All in all, when an emotional threat is experienced stress emotions escalate and get the brain and body ready for action and increasing a focus on negative information.  In this way, fear and anger become dominant reactions in stressful situations.  As these brain and body reactions increase, the activity of the prefrontal cortex decreases. The prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead, is responsible for making plans, setting goals, and shaping emotions. Thus, an activation of the amygdala during times of stress leads to fear and anger that decreases our ability to reason, regulate our emotions or work the problem through, all of which are functions of the prefrontal cortex which is inhibited.

Over time, the ongoing activation of the brain and body can lead to depression, anxiety and a host of physical ailments including gastrointestinal disorders, decreased immune function, cardiovascular illness, and hormonal (decreased libido) and metabolic problems (type II diabetes).

This stress response evolved over time to help our ancestors survive in relatively dangerous environments. Although our environments have hanged considerably, our stress response has not. In order to mediate the stress response, we must actively utilize emotional regulation techniques including relaxation, meditation, cognitive-behavioral techniques and others to increase our ability to realistically interpret or to learn to reinterpret challenging events.

Submitted by Holly Houston, Ph.D. Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Decrease Anxiety by Living in the Now

Decrease Anxiety by Living in the Now 

I find that most often, people feel sadness and increased amounts of anxiety by living in the past—hanging on to events that shaped who they are today. These events were either negative, positive, or both.  We find with athletes it’s often a positive event they chase to recapture the euphoria of that event.  We see this with greats like Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. 
However, for some of us focusing on the past is often connected to either a trauma or fear we cannot shake.  It may be a long held belief that has affixed itself to our psyche.  These unshakeable thoughts become a part of our daily lives.  We find it difficult to move throughout the day carrying the burden of these weighted thoughts, feelings, and emotions with us.  Some symptoms of hopelessness are difficulty sleeping, an inability to sustain attention, lack of interest in social activities, sex, work, and possibly a decrease in appetite may be experienced.
A great first step to regaining control of your life is to seek professional help that can guide you through the process of eliminating thoughts that are barriers to your daily functioning.  Remember, you are not alone and you don’t have to endure this alone.  Many individuals experience diminished interest in life when they are unable to stop the repetitive voices inside their heads sending messages that make them feel unhappy and give a sense of hopelessness.  The process of learning how to dial down the voices and thoughts comes with using therapeutic tools that help you make a shift in your beliefs.  You see when you learn a new way of thinking about your past it allows you to be present in the Now.
Being present in the now…I know it sounds funny and maybe even a little off-center for some people.  But, I can tell you it works.  Working through the process of acceptance and believing—provides you with the tools to affirm that you have made it through that experience.  That’s right, YOU made it. Even if you have come through your journey with scars, it still counts as an accomplishment.  I imagine it took a lot to make it to the other side of your journey. So let’s put the focus on now. You are living in the here and now.  Your experience may have been a negative one that caused you to doubt your abilities or cause you to believe you are worthless and without hope. It’s simply not true. In fact by taking the time to read this blog its proof you are willing to do the work it takes to decrease your pain.  You are a winner.  Don’t forget, as long as we breathe we have a second chance. 
Take this moment to stop and deeply breathe in the air surrounding you.  Take a moment to really look around your surroundings.  Make a decision to be very present in this moment.  If you are unhappy with what you see, seek help to make changes that will improve your life.  Make a decision to leave the past behind and actively participate in your decision to Live in the Now.

Submitted by Lauren F. White-Johnson, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Anxiety and Stress Center, Orland Park, IL
(708) 349-5433