In today’s busy world with the competing pressures of work, family and social commitments, many of us complain about being stressed.
With all these stresses coming from so many different places, how much is too much? And, is some degree of stress good for us? We consulted with the experts – Dr. Mandy Wintink, director of the Centre for Applied Neuroscience in Toronto and Toronto therapist Sari Shaicovitch.
Let’s start with the science. What happens to our brain when we experience stress?
When we experience a jolt to the system or stressor, anything from a difficult conversation to almost being hit by a bus, our nervous system releases stress hormones. These stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol, circulate through the blood system and eventually reach the brain. They get the body ready for action and make us more focussed. Difficulties arise when we have too much cortisol. Too much cortisol, or chronic exposure to the stress response system, can put you at risk for anxiety, depression, memory impairment, heart disease, weight gain and other health problems.
Does the adult brain continue to grow?
Neuroscientists are learning more and more about how much capacity our brain has to change. Well into our old age, our brain is adaptive. We can continue to learn new habits and strategies. Dr. Wintink explains, “It seems that there is no end to our ability to learn new things. Both the neuroscience and psychology are showing that. My opinion, based on what I know about neuroscience, is that we can continue to build resilience throughout our life.”
Is some degree of stress good for us?
On a basic level, our bodies need stress. The mind continues to grow and develop through our lives. It craves challenge and stimulation. “Adversity helps satisfy that craving and makes us less fragile and more resilient,” suggests Shaicovitch. She goes on to explain that we should think of our mind like our immune system. Early in life, children are exposed to germs and as a result, develop a stronger immune system. Similarly, when you have been exposed to stress and have had success dealing with challenges, you become better equipped to cope with future stresses and to view stress as more manageable.
According to Dr. Wintink, “The mind needs some level of stimulation and stress, but not too much.” She describes two types of stress, acute stress and and chronic stress. She explains that acute stress, which is good for us, is designed to mobilize us and get us out the way of danger. We become more vigilant, more aware and can make quick, often lifesaving, decisions. We also have an ability to shut it off pretty quickly. The problem arises when we end up in a chronic stress situation that is constantly taxing us, the system starts to shut down and gets damaged or worn out. Dr. Wintink compares chronic stress to never changing the brakes in your car. Eventually, you will not be able to stop quickly. The areas of the brain that are wearing down are those that are important for memory and mental health.
While we need challenges and stimulation to feel alive, Dr. Wintink thinks stress is generally bad for our system. She likens our brain to a cup. When we are too stressed, it is as if our cup is completely full and we cannot take on any new experiences or learn any new things. If we can keep our cup half full, then our brain is able to deal with new environments and challenges. To put our best foot forward, as we get older, Dr. Wintink suggests we try to keep our stress down so that our brain can be resilient and continue to learn.