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The Brain on Stress

Those who grew up in the 80’s can’t forget this gem of a PSA:


While the war on drugs continues to rage on, another battle happens almost every day in traffic jams, breakrooms, and around dinner tables: the battle within the brain as it deals with stress. According to the American Psychological Association, the stress situation in America is “chronic.” That’s putting it mildly. Many would say modern-day Americans are the most collectively stressed-out population in history.

Could we really be worse off than our ancestors, who dealt with things like tribal wars, natural disasters, and animal predators? Several MD’s answer that question with a resounding ‘yes.’ Their reasons merit another blog post, but think: change, mobility, noise, expectations, busyness, overwork, role overload, information overload, traffic, threats, environmental factors, and fragmented relationships, to name a few. Throw in a global pandemic and an increasingly polarized world, and you have yourself a foolproof recipe for stress.

So, if this is your brain…

Image result for amygdala and prefrontal cortex and hypothalamus

and this is your brain on stress…

(Not really…but relatable, no?)

…what exactly happens physiologically when you have a fender-bender, a fight with your roommate, or even cheer on the Cowboys as they score a game-winning touchdown?

When a positive or negative stressor occurs, the hypothalamus stimulates the adrenal glands. This creates the “fight-or-flight” syndrome that allowed our ancestors to survive in the wake of predators and unfavorable natural elements. Cortisol prompts the body to move, quickly, while the emotional and reflexive part of the brain overtakes the thinking functions. This is a God-designed, effective process that not only enabled the survival of the human race, but also allowed the brain to acquire new skills.

However, under constant stress, such as is the norm in our day and age, a different phenomenon occurs.

The prefrontal cortex, a.k.a. the brain’s “executive control center,” governs important functions like blood pressure, glucose levels, and heart rate. In addition, it monitors how we control ourselves by keeping the somewhat volatile amygdala in line. When one starts to feel stressed, the amygdala lights up and emotions such as fear, anger, and anxiety begin to elevate. The prefrontal cortex normally acts as a governor in this instance, reminding the amygdala: ‘this, too, shall pass.’  However, when stress becomes not just a momentary flare-up but a chronic reality, the prefrontal cortex does a startling thing: it shrinks.

This shrinking of the cortex helps explain the shortening of your fuse. When under chronic stress, the constant cortisol in your body will cause you to land in overload mode, where things like irritability, anxiety, depression, and a myriad of physical health issues can become your companion.

Thankfully, God hardwired your brain to be malleable, and ancient spiritual practices can help you keep calm and carry on in the midst of harried 21st century living. The next time you need to tell your amygdala to just deal, try a few of these practices:

1) Body Practices:

a. Deep Breaths. May seem cliché, but taking deep, 3-seconds in, 3-seconds out breaths help to engage the parasympathetic system of the brain – ‘jarring’ you away from that auto-stress response and into a happier, calmer, more relaxed place.

b. Exercise. The body-mind connection runs deep. Exercise releases those feel-good chemicals called endorphins, providing an almost immediate stress-release.

2) Mind Practices:

a. Meditation/Prayer. Perhaps it’s just me, but when I engage in prayer when I’m stressed, I often end up ruminating on my problem rather than focusing on the God of the universe who is infinitely capable of meeting my needs. So, instead of praying about the problem, I try to start by meditating on the character of God.

b. Rehearsing Scripture. Romans 8Ephesians 3, and Psalm 103 are a few of my favorite passages to repeat.

c. Prioritize. Prioritize your people and your projects, in that order. Dr. Richard Swenson states: “If we don’t move to establish effective priorities, overloading will continue to fill up our schedules and keep us captive. We must learn the art of setting limits.”

3) People Practices:

a. Community. It cannot be overstated how much we need one another. The sense of “I’m not alone,” works wonders to reduce stress. Among God’s greatest gifts are the ability to debrief life’s experiences and laugh with other human beings.

b. Play. This may or may not involve others, but leisure is often best experienced as a communal activity. So get out there and throw a Frisbee, paint a canvas, listen to Mozart, or do a crossword – whatever floats your boat. Move “play” from the category of luxury to necessity. Your brain, body, and loved ones will thank you.

Helpful Sources:

American Psychological Association, Stress in America, “Our Health at Risk,” 2011, www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2011/final-2011.pdf.

The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, by John Mark Comer.

Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, by Dr. Richard A. Swenson.

The Hidden Link Between Adrenaline and Stress, by Dr. Archibald Hart.

The End of Stress: Four Steps to Rewire Your Brain, by Don Joseph Goewey

*Originally posted May 17, 2017. It seems our collective stress levels have only gotten worse in the 4 years since, hence this modified re-post.

Dr. Michelle Pokorny serves as an Adjunct Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, teaching D.Min classes on Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Disciplines, and Soul Care. Michelle developed a passion for women’s ministry during her college years while serving as a counselor at Pine Cove Christian Camps. Her desire to see women thrive in their gifting led her to DTS to gain a solid biblical and theological foundation. After receiving her MACE in Women’s Ministry, Dr. Pokorny began working with East-West Ministries, International, where she served in Human Resources and on the International Women’s Ministries Training Team. Michelle's doctoral work focused on burnout and soul-care among Christian leaders. Michelle is married to Mark and their favorite hobbies include traveling, exercising, and enjoying food and laughter with friends and family. They have one active toddler, Alexander.

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