The Mind is Neural Chemical
When I was nineteen, a nurse came into work to give flu shots. She administered these while telling everyone about stress and its effects on the body. If there was a proselytizer for the stress effect, it was her, and it was well before Dr. Oz and others started talking about it.
At the time I thought she was crazy. She was describing an emotion, and while I knew it had a chemical basis, that didn’t seem to be enough to account for everything she was claiming, such as stress’s effects on the risk of cancer, Alzheimer's and addiction.
In a way, I was sort of a fan of stress. It’s what got me through my days.
I was working three jobs, taking sixteen units in one of the school’s most challenging majors, partying nearly every night and commuting an hour to most of those locations.
Stress was a way of life.
An academic procrastinator, I knew that one stressed night before a test or research paper felt like it produced better results than my classmates who had prepared and studied for weeks.
For many of us stress is as familiar as the air we breathe.
It’s the waters we swim in, and we’re used to it. In fact, if there aren’t multiple stressors occurring we might find it hard to stay motivated to do anything.
We’re so used to the stress that it becomes our drive.
And that was the problem: the empty, listless sensation that came during moments of quiet and calm. These moments of rest weren’t enjoyable, they were times where I felt unplugged and powerless because the pure sensation of survival wasn’t pushing forward my every action.
One mental breakdown, several failed friendships, and three or four addictions later, I can tell you stress messes up a lot of things - and it's not just our sleep.
Stress has wide ranging effects on our behaviors, our relationships, and our minds.
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Repeated stress literally changes our brains, their structure, and chemical composition.
Dealing with stress is not a matter of toughening up or getting over an emotion. Consistent or traumatic stress changes the way our brains function and thus the way we think, act, and process information.
Stress literally changes you. It shapes you into someone else, and often that other person isn’t the best “me” that we can be.
In our goal to remember ourselves, to create positive changes and transform our lives and the community around us, stress must be addressed, healed and mastered.
It cuts us off from vast portions of ourselves, particularly those portions that make good decisions and carry out our ideals.
What follows is by no means a full exploration of stress’s effects on the body. Rather, it is a look at a few key systems that affect our ability to be the most that we can be in service to our life's calling and society.
The effect of stress on the Prefrontal Cortex, the Hippocampus, and the Amygdala is what really tends to get in the way of remembering who we are and how to empower ourselves.
But before we take a look at exactly what the brain is doing, let’s take a step back and look at the way emotions and the brain’s functions are often perceived. This is really important, especially when it comes to making positive changes and invoking our own personal transformation.
Many times, even with the most reflective of clients, when emotions come into play the internal narrative often becomes derogatory and abusive.
People blame themselves simply for having emotions.
I’ve worked with doctors, nurses, and therapists who can easily explain to me how stress or blood sugar are affecting their patients, but who lose all sight of these simple truths when it comes to themselves.
Trust me, it's easy to forget nearly anything when it comes to ourselves.
It's a staple of our society that emotions seem to get lost in the mind/body connection.
We’ve all heard of chemicals like cortisol, which often gets a bad rap, or dopamine, which is blamed for addiction, or serotonin, which is what people think makes ravers so happy.
In truth, each of these must be well balanced for a healthy, empowered life.
For many people, unless they have a mental health challenge or have experimented with chemical substances, the relation of chemical to consciousness is still rather subtle and undefined.
Someone may understand these chemicals play a part in our psyche, but when an addict relapses or a man or woman cries at a time that seems inappropriate, few people think of the neurology and the chemicals, they instead think of whether the person is “strong willed” and “in control of their emotions.”
Unless you’re capable of reaching inside and controlling - molecule by molecule - what chemicals are being released in your system and exactly what parts of the brain are being activated, then you’re not in control of your emotions.
You might have found a way to ignore them or hide them, maybe even not feel them, but you are not in control of them.
And this is where the cultural understanding of emotions really lets us down, especially in terms of stress.
Stress is physical, it shapes our brain and our bodies. When people tell you emotions are stored in the body, they aren't being hokey. Emotions are, in fact, stored chemically in your body.
Change your mind, change your life.
This was the slogan at the hypnosis center I used to work at.
Personally, I hated it. It was too simplistic. If a client wasn’t succeeding we were told to reframe them by telling them it’s all in their mind.
The thing is it’s actually true but the saying has no practical use just as a saying.
I’d have clients come into my office in tears, after seeing other hypnotists and coaches, saying they were trying everything they could to change their mind and the way they thought.
For most of these clients, there were some thought patterns that needed shifting, but there were also basic behavioral changes that not only helped them maintain wellness for their bodies but for their minds as well.
The idea with which they related to the changing of their minds had to change.
Instead of thinking of thoughts as easily malleable, transitory things, or worse, as part of ourselves, it helps to think of our thoughts as the results of slowly changing brains, physical neurons, and chemical shifts.
Change your mind and you will change your life. But your mind is one and the same as your brain, and changing the physical contents of your brain, which is how you change your thought patterns, takes time, work and effort.
Understanding this can really help us understand ourselves and bring compassion to the art of making positive change and transforming our lives.
It can help us remember ourselves without hating ourselves and gives us a more realistic expectation of how long it takes change to occur.
Change will take time because it requires a shifting of biological and physical structure. However, it is possible, which is sometimes hard to believe if you think of your thoughts as part of you.
This is a loop a lot of people get caught up in, “x behavior or belief is simply a part of me, I’ve tried, but I can’t change it.” The truth is, it’s a part of your brain’s habituated behavior, and it can be changed, it just takes effort and time.
For instance, if your goal is weight loss and you have kept to healthy foods and exercise for the last six days, but after a stressful day at work on Friday you find yourself unconsciously eating the kids’ cookies, this has nothing to do with you as a person, with your willpower, your mental resolve, the nature of your mind, your value and your thoughts.
It has everything to do with the way your brain has been shaped, and the way you are now reshaping it to be the person you want to be.
So let's dive in and see what is occurring in this scenario of cookie monster possession.
Our stress response.
Our brains evolved in the savannah and jungles of Africa where stress was a response to physical danger.
In these places, it’s actually a great thing that our brains shut down our curious thinking and lengthy judgment making processes in the face of stress.
Instead, the brain gives everything over to the Amygdala, well conditioned and ready for danger, in order to run from a lion.
We don’t want to stop mid-flight to appreciate the coloring of a gorgeous bird we see or remember the loss of one of our siblings to a lion and the depression that came with it.
We just want to get away from that lion as fast as possible.
In the savannah this is great. But it’s horrible when the real danger is a cookie.
Unlike the lion, cookies shape our brains by powerfully invoking the reward system because that’s what sugar does, fills the brain with all sorts of good vibes and pleasure chemicals.
In the wild, in a hunting-gathering society, which is most of human history (some 99.75% if you start the clock with Homo Hablis or 95% if you start the clock with Homo Sapiens), sugar from fruit is rare and it is truly a great thing to find. It is easy to digest and gives you plenty of energy to continue on in your hunting and gathering.
Your brain is wired to think it’s great and seek more of it, which is pretty horrible when it’s everywhere you turn and in dosages nature has never seen before.
So when we get spooked by your micromanaging, deadline thumping boss at work, the brain goes into stress mode and sees that cookie as a sort of holy grail, a powerful elixir of energy.
It never realizes that due to our modern conveniences the sugar in that cookie is just as deadly as the lion on the plains.
How exactly does all this work?
In the case of our example, Jennifer or Dave has had a bad day at work. The boss is breathing down their necks about deadlines.
There are probably already some side factors, such as the fact they haven’t eaten lunch because they're too busy, and maybe they skipped breakfast, devastating their blood sugars and their focus and moods with it.
Not to mention the lack of sleep from working full time and taking care of the kids.
It’s safe to assume they’ve already got some stress in their lives like we all do.
Either way, their brains take in the messages of an overly loud boss and interpret stress and danger.
Danger of displeasing this authority figure, danger of losing their job and if the mind, in its weakened, tired state, or its hyped up caffeinated state starts over thinking this then it becomes danger of losing the house, the car and the kids. Probably grandma too somehow.
(By the way coffee helps you stay focused by causing your body to react as if it’s in a stressed state already. It increases arousal and concentration, which the body typically reserves for danger.)
So Jennifer or Dave are now stressed. This is causing a whole bunch of problems for the mind and body, but what I want to focus on are the effects that lead to the hidden cookie-monster crouching-lion complex.
When we get stressed the brain starts to release a bunch of dopamine and noradrenaline. The noradrenaline does a whole host of things, and its breakdown isn’t fun for the body or the mind. But I really want to focus on the dopamine bit here.
The dopamine goes on to bombard the Prefrontal Cortex or the PFC. The PFC is responsible for most of our good decisions. It weighs the good and the bad and makes the best choice.
When you wake up in the morning and you think to yourself, “I’m going to eat healthy, hit the gym today, meditate, and play with the kids,” this is your PFC talking.
The PFC then spends the rest of the day getting beat down by reality until it’s so dead and tired from all the stressed states that it finds itself eating pizza in the bedroom, in the gym clothes that were never used, and bribing the kids with a movie if they just promise to leave you alone.
A lot of this has to do with the fact that the increased dopamine overwhelms the PFC until it essentially shuts down (1).
Just imagine throwing your hands in the air and giving up, this is what the PFC does, and it really doesn’t have much of a choice.
When the PFC gets overwhelmed and gives up, the Hippocampus and Amygdala take over.
Both are responsible for memories, the Hippocampus for your everyday memory and the Amygdala for more intense, traumatic memories and survival instincts.
When the Hippocampus is still engaged it uses its function of memory and spatial awareness to keep you going. So let’s pretend you’re this man or woman, and you’re in your stressed state.
Your mind is in a loop over what you’re supposed to get done at work. The PFC is too tired and bombarded to do actual problem solving so it just runs through the problems again and again, stressing out more and more.
You get caught in a mental loop while the Amygdala and Hippocampus take over and the latter drives you home.
Somewhat used to the stress, the brain, thanks to the Hippocampus, still remembers to stop somewhere to get the kids food, because that’s what it’s always done when things get too stressful. It even knows where the closest Pizza Hut, Subway or McDonald’s is, pick your poison, whatever the go-to is for quick and easy food.
On the way home, the Hippocampus runs through all your normal routines. Maybe you have to pick up the kids or your dry cleaning. The Hippocampus knows where it’s all at, don’t worry, it’s got your back.
It takes you around and if you’re lucky you may remember that third place you had to go today, the one out of the normal routine. You might get frustrated figuring out where it is because the Hippocampus isn’t used to it, it’s not part of the routine.
If you don’t give up and put it off for another day you may find you are shorter tempered on this stop.
If the people there go beyond the playbook of “How’s your day? Thank you,” you may find yourself flustered and having trouble communicating. Maybe you even leave your card there because you’re not used to the store and the Hippocampus isn’t used to what you are doing.
The PFC tends to take care of the actions that aren’t just redundant or preprogrammed.
There’s a reason most customer service interactions seem scripted, and items in the same stores stay in their accustomed place.
It allows us to manage the interactions and place no matter our emotional or mental state because the Hippocampus remembers where things are and what to do.
When the PFC goes offline we might find ourselves more emotionally reactive because it’s the part of the brain that tends to balance us out rationally.
We may also have trouble taking on new tasks as the PFC is the one typically doing the navigating or figuring out a new system if we don’t already have it memorized.
If we’re able to stay on auto-pilot the Hippocampus has us covered. It will get us home and through all the night’s chores.
It cleans the dishes, straightens the house, does whatever you normally do, and since you used to eat a cookie to deal with stress or to appease all that dopamine running through your body telling you that you need something to fix this experience of feeling awful, well, the Hippocampus is going to give you that cookie, because that’s what it does.
It does what you’ve always done because as far as it knows, you’re still alive and what you used to do is obviously working for you.
Maybe later that night or the next day, rested and feeling a bit better your PFC comes back online and wonders why the hell you ate that cookie?
It then starts the inner dialogue of self-abuse, calling yourself weak-willed, addicted or any number of other self-critical thoughts.
In reality, a different part of your brain was operating from the moment you were triggered into the stress response.
Maybe you even recognized a small voice in the back of your mind rattling off all the reasons you shouldn’t be eating that cookie, or watching that second hour of television, or having that third glass of wine.
That’s the tiny bit of advice your PFC is able to muster while it’s getting overloaded with dopamine and noradrenaline.
When we take care of our bodies, minds, and spirits, when we nourish and empower ourselves, when we remember ourselves, that small voice can make all the difference in keeping us set and on target with our goals.
When we’re undernourished, tired and not in touch with ourselves, that small voice is often nothing more than a guilty conscience as we do what we’re wired to do, what we’ve always done. We may feel in that moment it's the only way to survive, and the parts of our brains that are acting really believe it, because they are memory based, focusing on the reward pathways of dopamine and serotonin and really this is all they know.
When we repeat this stressed process often enough, our PFC begins to shrink down and go offline easier and longer, our Amygdala gets bigger and the brain and body start to break down.
We get used to this condition, and yes we can function, if we’re very used to it sometimes we function better than others suffering the same condition, but we are by no means functioning at our full ability.
We are quite literally folding in on ourselves, retreating from the extended space of the PFC back deeper into the brain, through the Hippocampus and eventually leaving even that behind for the Amygdala if the stress is too much to handle.
This is what occurs in trauma states. Even the Hippocampus gets overwhelmed and we are now trapped in the Amygdala, a part of the brain that does not understand time or space, simply fear and the need for survival.
If you are familiar with PTSD states, this is where you go or your loved ones go when triggered.
I can tell you, it isn’t a fun place to be. Simply imagine a state of mind with no sense of time, no sense of space, a complete and overwhelming sense of danger and no ability to process emotions.
The description alone links it to accounts of hell.
When we enter a traumatized state, we break out of the mental understanding of time and space and end up back in the memory of the trauma or pain.
Sometimes it brings all of it back; oftentimes it’s just the sensation associated with a random trigger the Amygdala has spent its whole day watching out for.
It doesn’t realize the danger may have been years or decades ago, the sound of the door latch shutting, the crack of the bullet firing, or just the smell of a cigarette might be enough to trigger the reaction of what happened then, now.
The closer one gets to these particular triggers, typically the more extreme the reaction.
Personally, if I don’t manage it, I go into a bi-polar state. I’ve had clients who start binge eating and gain 10-14 pounds in a week. This is where most people relapse if they are going to.
The desire to understand this phenomenon led to the ACE Study, but that is a subject for another time.
Today we just want to get an understanding of why the cookie monster comes out to play. Or why we spend too much money at the wrong times, or skip the gym, or do any number of things that contradict our best intentions and our dedication to our transformation.
The truth is the part of the brain with the best intentions is very different than the part of the brain that is most active when we are in a stress triggered state, and the longer we remain in a stress state in terms of life spent, the more we become that other person who doesn’t match our best intentions.
But I don’t want to leave it there. While it is important to understand this very physical phenomenon, the knowledge that it is happening does nothing if we do not put to use the tools to change it and thus shape our brains in a new way.
Call to Action:
Here are Thirteen Ways to Manage Your Stress. Remember yourselves and your goals even in stressed states. Starting from the immediate, in the moment actions down to ways to improve your life and grow resilient to stress.
I’ll leave out the obvious ones like sleep, diet, and exercise.
Whether you read the other article or not, please start paying attention to your stress states.
This isn't something to simply toughen out and get over. Stress wrecks our bodies and our minds. Be the most that you can be, find a way to reduce your stress.
If you’d like to work with me on reducing your own stress feel free to set up a free consultation with me.
You can also join a community of other self-developers on Facebook where we discuss topics such as stress, trauma, and anger. The science behind it all and our own personal stories.
Or join our mailing list and receive a free Stress-Free Hypnosis Recording.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on stress. What methods do you employ to reduce your stress?
What have you experienced in life when you were able to get stress under control?
Please leave your comment below and always feel free to email me.