How Stress Affects Your Brain, And What You Can Do About It

By Marina Arshavskiy

If you find yourself regularly feeling overwhelmed by the day that’s ahead of you, believing that getting through the workday is a chore rather than an exciting challenge, or feeling completely drained by midday, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans, and many of them women, are in the same boat as you. What’s behind it all? Stress! 

There’s good news, though: Once you understand what stress is and how your body reacts to it, you have a powerful tool you can deploy to combat it. And that magical tool is called relaxation! Now, hold on, we know what you’re thinking: “Um, of course I’d like to relax, but that’s easier said than done.”

Or is it? Read on, because we’ve got you.

Stress By The Numbers

Nearly 75% of Americans report experiencing varied symptoms of stress at least once a month. Anger, irritability, nervousness, fatigue, and anxiousness are symptoms reported in nearly a third of the population. Chronic fatigue syndrome, at 0.4% of the population, is a major concern for Americans. That’s a whopping 836,000 to 2.5 million individuals nationwide. However, a good 40% of working individuals feel job-related stress is the bigger concern for them, feeling stressed or extremely stressed in the workplace. 

The sources of stress are wide-ranging—from the economy and world events to personal relationships and finances. But stress disproportionately impacts more women than men. And that’s no surprise. Women, especially working women, simultaneously juggle responsibilities at home and in the workplace. As a result, they get busy with their daily tasks and forget to find time for themselves—a vital prerequisite to relaxing and destressing.

How Stress Affects Your Brain

While it’s important to realize that relaxation is the key to preventing stress before you experience it, and fighting stress once it’s upon you, it may help to understand how your body deals with stress. And the key to that understanding lies in our brain.

The limbic system in our brain acts as the control center for processing stress. A closely-related subsystem, the prefrontal cortex, works to process stress signals and determine a response to them. Signals are sent to the amygdala (part of the limbic system) to trigger a fight-or-flight response to the stressful situation. The hypothalamus (another part of the limbic system) then carries out the appropriate response by opening glands and releasing adrenaline and cortisol, stress-fighting chemicals produced by the body.

Our brains are excellent at perceiving stressful situations and delivering a hormonal response to them. However, here’s the problem: Unless we learn to relax and reduce stress in our lives, those chemical reactions might do more harm than good to our bodies.

RELATED: The Power of Breakfast: Boost Your Brain with the Most Important Meal of the Day

Why Women Are So Stressed

Women tasked with playing multiple roles at home, work, and in other areas of society, experience more stress than men do. As a result, they aren’t able to pause, take a step back, and relax their way out of a stressful situation. From lack of focus and sleeplessness to nausea, upset stomach, and chest pains—it all adds up over time. 

Women facing acute stress—stress triggered for a short period of time—might overcome those moments without a proper stress management strategy. Stress, brought about by childbirth, anxiety over a new relationship, impending separation or divorce, or taking on a new role in the workplace, can sometimes pass without employing strategies such as stress relief mitigation. 

However, when left without an appropriate coping mechanism, acute stress may transform into chronic stress. If you don’t master the art of relaxation to destress, your brain’s amygdala will constantly send fight-flight signals to the hypothalamus. This will result in a continuous flood of adrenaline and cortisol in your body, which can be detrimental to your overall health.

Relaxation Tips to Stress Less

Relaxing—or Stress Less as we like to call it here at Nutritious Life—is a critical stress management strategy.  When you find yourself overwhelmed by stress, pause, stop everything you’re doing, and listen to your body. Take a deep breath and ask yourself:  

  • What do I want right now? 
  • How am I feeling right now? 
  • Why do I feel this way? 

This strategy acts as a “circuit breaker” that disengages your body and mind from the ongoing (or upcoming) stressful situation. It allows your brain to think logically, and develop a more rational response to combating stress.

Some other helpful relaxation strategies include:

  • Meditation and deep breathing
  • Practicing yoga
  • Getting a massage or going to a spa
  • Working out or going for walks
  • Taking frequent work breaks
  • Learning to take time for yourself (park your motherly or spousal responsibilities for a moment each day and do fun things instead)
  • Practice delegation and task breakdown (deconstruct a huge project into manageable smaller tasks, which gives you more time to take it easy instead of constantly being on the go)
  • Reach out to friends and family and chat about bucket-filling topics  that don’t stress you out

For women that lead a hectic work or home life (aka, all of us!), it can be challenging to take scheduled breaks to get to the gym or a spa to relax. If you’re feeling stress build up but are stuck at work or somewhere you can’t get away, try this quick stress-busting reset: inhale deeply, exhale,counting to ten as you release your breath. Do this at least five times, but as many times as you need to.

Of course, lifestyle choices, diet, ensuring you get sufficient quality sleep each night, and nutrition also play an important role in staying healthy and stress-free. (This is why we’re such proponents of the 8 pillars of a Nutritious Life.) Staying up late every night, excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages, smoking, or drinking too much coffee—especially near bedtime—can destabilize your relaxation routines. Embracing a more organized schedule, either at work or home, also contributes to destressing and relaxation.

You may also find supplements, such as magnesium, and vitamin B12, help with managing stress and reducing fatigue. Adding adaptogenic herbs, such as maca, or rhodiola to your daily routine may also help rejuvenate you during stressful times. Be sure to discuss supplements with your practitioner so you can arrive at a plan that’s right for you. 

Learn How to Live a Nutritious Life

Managing stress is one pillar of living a Nutritious Life, along with Drink Up, Eat Empowered, Live Consciously, Love More, Nurture Yourself, Sleep Deep, and Sweat Often. Putting all the pieces together can help you—and others, when you share this important info—to live happy, healthy lives.

Our Become a Nutrition Coach certification course gives you a solid foundation in these pillars, plus techniques for coaching clients and growing your new business, all within a community of passionate, like-minded friends. It’s the perfect way to inspire the next generation of healthier people all across the globe.

Request a sneak peek of the Become a Nutrition Coach program here and see how you can put your passion for wellness to work.

(Image: Unsplash)

About Marina Arshavskiy
Marina Arshavskiy is a Master Level Nutritious Life Certified professional and a board-certified holistic health practitioner. She regularly shares healthy eating tips and recipes on her website – The Leaders System, and also on her Instagram account -  Marina is also the author of the Healthy Weight Loss and Balanced Nutrition eBook.

Interested in joining our wellness community and becoming a Nutritious Life Master Certified Nutrition and Wellness Coach?

Enter your info, get free access now to a sample class!

Inside Articles page - take a free class form

"*" indicates required fields

I agree*
I would like to receive text messages, and agree to the Terms of Service & Privacy Policy. Reply STOP to cancel, HELP for help. Msg & data rates may apply. Msg frequency varies.