Your Brain & Stress
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
First, you need to understand the brain and body connection! Our brains are designed to do one thing, and that's to survive. Through an intricate, fast, unconscious sorting system your brain determines if things are safe or unsafe. The other important aspect is that your brain operates from the bottom up. All incoming information is processed from the outside world, through the brain stem, to the limbic system (emotions), then to the cortex (thinking brain). Your brain then sends signals back to your body to respond accordingly. For survival purposes, our brain is designed to put reaction above thought when we are faced with danger. Furthermore, our brains are designed to focus on the negative and to recall our reaction so when we are confronted by a similar negative experience we will remember it. If the incoming information from the outside world is familiar or has been experienced to be safe then the brainstem does not activate the stress response. However, if the information is unfamiliar or has previously been associated with a threat, the stress response interferes with processing to your thinking brain. You are responding from the lower parts of your brain. See the infograph I made below, referencing Dr. Bruce Perry's work (Dr. Bruce Perry, 2013).
So the more stress we are under the lower in our brain we function out of.
Stressors activate our stress response. These could be anything (e.g., work, family, society, self-criticism, body image, worry about the future, memories from the past, etc).
Flight, Fight, or Freeze:
When threatened our brain does a split-second decision on which response it will need to survive. Flight is when our brain decides that running away is the best chance of survival and fight is when our brain decides that trying to overpower the threat is the option to lead to survival. Freeze is our brain assessing that we can neither outrun nor fight the threat so it's best to just check out and shut down (NICABM, 2021).
The stress response is designed for only short bursts, not prolonged periods. When we've been exposed to stress for too long, we reach a surge capacity and the stress hormones sit in our bodies. These stress hormones are cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Too much or repeated exposure to these hormone can have a negative impact on your body and brain (NICABM, 2018). Psychotherapy can help teach you how to manage these experiences.
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), 2021, How the Nervous System Responds to Trauma, https://www.nicabm.com/how-the-nervous-system-responds-to-trauma/
National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), 2018, How Anger Affects your Brain and Body, https://www.nicabm.com/brain-how-anger-affects-your-brain-and-body-infographic-part-3/
Dr. Bruce Perry: https://www.childtrauma.org/brain-dev-neuroscience
Dr. Bruce Perry, The Child Academy Trauma Channel: Seven Slide Series: State Dependent Functioning https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uCn7VX6BPQ, February 27, 2014.
Dr. Bruce Perry, The Child Academy Trauma Channel: Seven Slide Series: The Threat Response Pattern: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sr-OXkk3i8E, December 31, 2013.
Created by Michelle Spudic citing:
Dr. Bruce Perry, The Child Academy Trauma Channel: Seven Slide Series, The Human Brain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOsgDkeH52o, September 6, 2013.
Dr. Bruce Perry, The Child Academy Trauma Challnnel: Seven Slide Series: The Threat Response Pattern: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sr-OXkk3i8E, December 31, 2013.