Stress is an unavoidable aspect of our daily lives. We face deadlines and get stuck in traffic, experience conflict and financial struggles, and live in a race against time. All things considered, humans are remarkably resilient against stress. It’s even useful to a point. When stress becomes chronic or excessive, however, it can exceed our natural ability to cope, resulting in harmful consequences for both the body and mind. Stress can result from any change you must adapt to, because change–good or bad–poses a threat to our homeostasis, or internal stability. It can result from both external and internal factors. External stressors include physical, environmental, social, financial, and political influences, such as crowded transportation, problems with loved ones, or bodily danger. Internal stressors, on the other hand, include our perceptions of these outside forces, as well as any thoughts and feelings that surpass our ability to respond effectively. Examples include negative self-talk, unrealistic expectations, and inability to accept uncertainty.
How it looks in the brain
Stress acts on various levels of our being, including the physiological, neurological, psychological, and social levels. All of these levels are interconnected and affect one another, influencing the overall state of one’s wellbeing. Our brain is the master controller which interprets what is stressful or not, and thus manages the physiological and behavioral responses suitable to that interpretation. Whenever a threat is identified, an automatic alarm reaction is triggered throughout our body. A part of this reaction is the activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight-flight-freeze response.
The fight-or-flight reaction is our body’s way of “clearing the decks” to face immediate danger with defensive or aggressive action. It does this by rapidly signaling a series of biochemical changes and nervous-system firings. Overall, we become more alert, attentive, and prepared to fight for our lives.
While the responses of fight or flight tend to be the most commonly recognized, there is a third physiological response to stress that we occasionally utilize, which has been termed as the freeze response. When faced with an inescapable stressor, our body responds by releasing endogenous opioids (otherwise known as endorphins or our body’s natural morphine). These neurotransmitters have an analgesic effect and thus serve to numb pain–both physical and emotional–when death or harm seems inevitable. In humans, this response often manifests as dissociation, immobility, or “shutting down.”
While the brain is the manager of the stress response, it too can fall victim to its consequences. Researchers have found extensive evidence of how wide-spread the effects of stress are across various brain regions. For example, the limbic system, which plays a large role in emotional processing, becomes activated when an individual is stressed to help the body process and prepare for a response. In cases of chronic stress, however, the prolonged activation of the limbic system may contribute to irrational decision-making and exaggerated emotional reactions to daily stressors. When a person feels threatened by a stressor the rapid limbic system reacts before the slower prefrontal cortex has a chance to evaluate the stimulus. Usually, the prefrontal cortex modulates limbic activity and helps to inhibit inappropriate responses, but extreme stress interrupts this usual flow so that the body can respond as quickly as possible, although the response may not be rational or well thought-out in the moment. Excessive stress hormones also impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex. In situations of chronic or excessive stress these hormones are overproduced and can cause physical harm. Exposure to large amounts of hormones can damage the central nervous system, hippocampus, and several other organs of the body. It can also age brain cells more rapidly, build fat around the body’s midsection, and cause learning deficits.
What NeuroGrove can do
We take a holistic, integrative approach to stress management that includes not only healing the negative effects stress has had on the brain and body, but also teaching you skills and supporting you in making lifestyle changes necessary for managing the stress you face in the future.
At NeuroGrove, the first step of any treatment package is a comprehensive assessment that includes QEEG brain mapping, LORETA 3D neuroimaging, various testing, and a thorough discussion of symptoms and goals. This allows us to assess for the brain patterns and physiological symptoms most commonly associated with chronic stress.
Both neurofeedback and neurostimulation can be used to restore healthy brain wave activity, calm down over-active regions, and improve communication across the brain. Biofeedback and mindfulness training can help you to gain more control over your autonomic nervous system, allowing you to modulate anxious physiological responses like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, and muscle tension.
Through movement therapy, we teach you how to provide a healthy release for the fight-flight-freeze response and connect with your body, building self-awareness and self-empowerment. Functional medicine testing and nutritional coaching help address some common factors associated with stress like diet, adrenal exhaustion, inflammation, etc.
Whichever services you choose to engage with, we will work collaboratively with you to improve your overall brain-body wellness so you can be the best version of you!
What the research says
Humans have always experienced stress and the stress response is hardwired into our DNA. However, modern society comes with constant, and new stressors that our bodies are continuously trying to cope with. People are sleeping less, eating worse, and getting less sunshine….all of which limit one’s ability to manage stress. It’s no wonder that there is a good deal of research surround how stress affects the body and what interventions are most effective for treating those negative effects and minimizing the consequences of more damage by future stressors.
One study conducted by Rice, Blanchard, & Purcell (1993) compared the effects of frontal electromyography (EMG) biofeedback, EEG alpha uptraining, EEG alpha downtraining, and pseudomeditation on helping clients reduce and manage their anxiety. Patients received 8 sessions of one of the 4 interventions and completed pre and post measurements. All groups self-reported reductions in their anxiety symptoms. However, only the EMG and alpha uptraining interventions showed significant improvements in stress levels, including physiological stress readings such as changes in heart rate. This further supports existing evidence that neurofeedback, especially when paired with other feedback methods (e.g., EMG biofeedback) can be an effective tool for minimizing anxiety symptoms and improving overall stress tolerance.
For more research on this topic, please visit our Research page.
Rice, K. M., Blanchard, E. B., & Purcell, M. (1993). Biofeedback treatments of generalized anxiety disorder: preliminary results. Biofeedback and Self-Regulation, 18(2), 93–105. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf0184811