Most of us think along two tracks when it comes to stress: one, it’s bad; two, it’s more of a feeling than an actual biological process. Wrong on both counts. The fact is, stress is actually designed to help you.
Back in the days of the woolly mammoth, the elevated heart rate and blood sugar levels caused by response to a stressful event rushed blood and energy to our muscles so we could escape attacking tribes or tigers. That stress was helpful to get us to fight or take flight. It was also fleeting. Once the threat was gone, so were the high blood sugar and elevated heart rates.
But now that we’re in a time when the occasional tiger in the wild has been replaced by ever-present tigers in the office/family/carpool lane, your stress levels may actually never wane – and those chronically elevated blood sugar levels and heart rates chip away at your health. So some stress isn’t bad; it’s just that a lot of sustained stress is.
Here’s how it works biologically: when you’re faced with a stressor, your brain (specifically your hypothalamus, the section of your brain that produces these hormones) releases corticotropin-releasing hormone, which then stimulates your pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone into your bloodstream. That hormone tells the adrenal gland atop each kidney to release the stress hormone cortisol, which then facilitates the release of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) to give you the juju to defeat the stressor. I know, I know: that’s a lot of stimulation. This cascade of events is called the stress circuit, and it lies at a place called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When adrenaline and cortisol levels are elevated, they age your arteries, damage your immune system, and most important for memory, destroy connections in your hippocampus (your brain’s memory coordinating center), hurting not just your happiness levels but also the insides of your brain.
Now, the tricky part of stress is that, at least at this point, it’s not like some other areas of biology we can address. I can tell you that eating X, Y and Z foods will help ease inflammation and improve your overall health. I can tell you that walking 10,000 steps a day will also reverse some of the destructive processes going on in your body. But stress isn’t like curing appendicitis. No single prescription works for everybody. And unfortunately, there’s no 400-milligram dose of Thai massage that will automatically help all people manage their stressors better. So what do you do? This, admittedly, is sort of like experimental medicine – except in this case, you’re the doc and you have to figure out what prescription works best for you.
But no matter what works for you, use it, because nothing is even close to managing stress for preserving brain function. If there were a 100-point program for preserving memory, exercise and food choices together would notch about 30 points, brain games about six, and managing responses to otherwise stressful events, about 26 points. So if you want to remember those memories, learn to manage your response to events.
Dr. Michael Roizen is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Follow him on Twitter @YoungDrMike.