Stress is not necessarily a bad thing, but too much stress, can be very harmful to the body. So how do we learn to manage stress and what is the impact it has on our minds and bodies?

Central Nervous System

The central nervous system (CNS) is comprised of the brain and the spinal cord, and can be considered the command and control centre of the human body. It communicates with the rest of the body via neurons linked to what is called the peripheral nervous system (PNS). When a stimulus is introduced to the body, receptors communicate with sensory neurons, which in turn communicate with motor neurons to affect a response within the CNS.

A nervous breakdown can happen when the CNS is subjected to repeated and prolonged stress. It can also be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Worry, chronic stress, fear, anxiety, nervousness and panic attacks are all symptoms of a mental breakdown, or burnout.

Allostatic load

Allostasis is the process of achieving stability (homeostasis) through physiological or behavioural change; it is the wear and tear on the body that develops over time when an individual is exposed to chronic and fluctuating stress levels.

Every system in the body is affected by allostatic overload. Initially, the production of adrenaline and cortisol sharpen up the memory, keeping the individual focused in a time of danger. As the stress is repeated however, the neurons atrophy and memory becomes impaired. The immune system is impacted also; low levels of stress promote immune function by sending immune cells to the areas of the body where they are needed to defend against a pathogen. Chronic stress however, has the reverse effect of suppressing immune function, and the individual’s risk of chronic disease suddenly becomes elevated.

Stress and exercise

If chronic stress is left unchecked it can lead to physical and mental breakdown. Now, exercise can’t directly help certain things, but it can help to improve your state of mind, help you sleep better and therefore think more clearly. Exercise has been proven to decrease the production of stress-related hormones and increase the production of other hormones such as serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine, which together can contribute to making you feel more positive, happier and uplifted.

Anxiety, depression and exercise

Exercise is often under-prescribed by the medical community as part of a treatment plan for anxiety and depression, but despite that is widely considered to be central to helping people manage their condition. It isn’t only the chemical responses in the region of the brain that help make people feel better about themselves, but also the physical changes can help improve one’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and competency.

The brain and exercise

There are numerous positive changes to the brain that occur during and after exercise (specifically aerobic exercise). These changes occur in different parts of the brain, and in some cases the benefits are still enjoyed even after you stop exercising.

One of the best ways to manage chronic stress is exercise, but it must be at the appropriate intensity, for the right time and the right type. If you are very stressed, it might be best for you to start with a gentle walk. If you’re worried about your stress levels, consult your GP as a first step.

leanne spencer

Leanne Spencer

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of SE22 magazine.