How Stress Affects Brain Function
When we talk about the functions of the brain, we have to consider both the physiological and emotional activities in play. Physically, we know the effects of stress and the consequential illnesses that follow. To understand better we need to discuss 3 regions of the brain.
The encephalic region of the brain is assigned to monitor survival and instinctive activities such as sex. The limbic region is where emotional, short-term memory is stored through the hippocampus. All emotions such as fear, anger, resentment, anxiety, and sadness are processed through the limbic area. Here information is captured through our visual, taste, olfactory, and touch senses. In this region information is safely stored in neurons. We can generate new thoughts by associating this stored information.
The neocortex (frontal) is responsible for higher intellect, reasoning, intuition, and wisdom. Here new files are opened and our experiences are saved to be used in the future to reconcile and interpret new events or episodes. Our values, conscience, and even our agency to choose are also bundled here. A lot of interaction occurs between the Cortex region and limbic area. Signals from impressions are sent to the limbic region to help repair emotional damages that have been created by any unreasonable thoughts.
These regions are closely connected and interact with one another. Well balanced interaction between these regions will maintain emotional and physical health. This all depends on our thoughts. It’s interesting to note that the brain can understand and differentiate between good, logical thoughts and unreasonable ones. Good thoughts bring health to every single cell in our body, while unreasonable thoughts are like toxins that affects the entire body. All our personality traits and qualities and even our deepest and most intricate feelings (such as compassion, empathy, humility, sense of belonging, and trust) depend on this balance.
Let’s talk about the brainstem. The brainstem (also known as the encephalic trunk) monitors our survival instincts. It also makes sure that our heart beats and that our digestive and respiratory systems as well as our hunger, sex and survival instincts. It’s composed of neurons and a station of nerves which contains information we use unconsciously. The brainstem is in charge of sending signals to various areas of the body to keep our survival as a priority. One important thing to note about this region of the brain is that it does not create judgement calls. This isn’t the thinking things through part of the brain, but rather the part that creates immediate impulses to fuel our instincts. The brainstem isn’t independent, but is directed by the limbic area of the brain where our emotions originate.
Our emotions are set in the limbic area. All emotion such as fear and resentment are managed in the limbic area by the amygdala. This area of the brain is responsible for us feeling pain and also pleasure. When pleasure is present, pain stops and vice versa. This is a highly necessary self-regulation system. All of our emotions are important and don’t do any damage to our bodies or minds normally. We’ve all got room in our minds for learning. As long as there is balance in all areas of our brain our emotions, no matter how strong, won’t take control over us and the brain and body will stay healthy. On the flipside, however, if there is no balance between these different regions of the brain, mental and physical damage is promoted.
All the neurons in the limbic area can create connections. Each individual neuron has thousands of axon terminals. Each of these extensions makes it possible for neurons to communicate when they connect at points of contact known as dendrites. This is an amazing capability that allows the limbic area to communicate with other parts of the brain. We’re talking about trillions of connections here! This ability makes our brains malleable. New connections are created every time we have a new experience or take in new information. This is how the brain is constantly changing. It is the only organ that can change through neuron activity. No other organ can do anything like this. An organ such as the heart is always creating new tissues and regenerating, but they are exact and there’s no differentiation between tissues as the heart continues on. The brain on the other hand is always expanding through experience. New connections are always being created. With our thoughts we create new maps, new routes and circuitries. We memorize words by repeating them over and over again, and a file is stored in our brain with this information we put into it. Knowing all of this, it’s important to also know that stressful thoughts create new routes that disrupt proper interaction between the different regions of the brain, negatively affecting balance and functionality.
The neocortex is an area of the brain whose first job is to assure that the limbic region is in check. This region monitors and regulates the rest of the brain so that we are more than just instinctive animals who are driven entirely by our emotions. This region is the centre of our consciences. Without the neocortex we wouldn’t be able to act freely or experience empathy, compassion or affection. This is largely what makes us human. We can think through what we are going to do before doing it. Our values are present in this area of the brain and stored in neuron files. Even though the limbic region of our brain is where learning takes place, the neocortex is the region that comes to action after we experience a difficult situation so that we can figure out how to overcome it. Any valuable information we’ve learned in our lives is stored in the neocortex so that we can access it in the future.
We described earlier how unreasonable thoughts constructed in the limbic area can be toxic for the brain. Negative thoughts create new circuitry that can potentially hurt us. When we sleep, the neocortex works extensibly to restore order and repair damage done by any negative or unreasonable thoughts. It also lets us use our consciences. The brain detoxifies while we sleep, getting rid of any toxins that have made their way into our bodies. During detox, any valuable information taken into the limbic system is transferred to the neocortex to be stored as long-term memory.
In order for our brains to function, we need intuition, emotions and intelligence. These are paramount in learning, surviving and living in a working society. Even our spirituality depends on the balance and connection between the limbic system, neocortex and brainstem. If we have this balance then compassion, humility, empathy and other valuable attitudes will be manifest in a way that will help us stay calm even under difficult circumstances. This will also help us to empathize better with other people who are going through their own challenges and help them.
Chronic stress promotes the production of certain toxins in the brain such as amylases. Specialized cells in the brain help remove chemicals like these that don’t belong in the brain and a good night’s rest keeps toxins like these from being produced. These toxins can be harmful over a period of time, affecting memory and the connection between the neocortex and limbic area.
All of the emotional and physical changes that have been described are done through chemicals that the brain produces to maintain stability, balance and equilibrium. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters promote or stimulate; others act as inhibitors and stop or control other excitatory neurotransmitters. The close connection our brain has to our body serves to regulate and maintain health, strength and personal happiness. Happiness will largely depend on how we look at a new event. Do we see it as a problem or opportunity? The choices we make will depend on how what we choose to act upon: our instincts (encephalic region), emotions (limbic region) or live a complete life with balance and connection between all of the regions of the brain. When we live a balanced life, we tend to find that there is a sense of peace regardless of the circumstances we are facing.
Whether we choose to act upon one area of the brain or the other is definitely related to our thoughts. For example, if I think my spouse or boss is constantly on my case, I will disconnect the neocortex area and my instinctual region will feel that I am in danger. Survival will become my predominant function that will reinforce emotions and physicality, creating a physical and emotional rollercoaster. New thoughts and new circuitry will be created that will undermine my ability to reconcile things. Over time, continuing these patterns of thoughts cause me to see others as enemies instead of friends. We cannot continue to live like this and expect to be or feel happy; neither can we expect to be healthy. Living this kind of lifestyle depletes certain neurotransmitters.
As a result damage occurs to the pineal gland, affecting our ability to sleep, the production of dopamine and serotonin, leaving me feeling exhausted, tired, impatient, angry, sad, panicked or anxious. Creativity and innovation are minimized, along with our ability to connect with others. As a result we end up living life feeling victimized. These feelings make it difficult for us to see the true problem.