Social Diary has collaborated with a medical expert to allow our readers to connect and have their concerns answered over their wellness-mental and physical. This week:
Shaheena Abdul Asks:
How Does Emotional Stress Make Neurobiological Changes to Your Brain and Body?
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The writer is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist.
Emotional stress refers to anything that can evoke negative emotions, such as fear, powerlessness, and anxiety, which can adversely affect health. The statistics indicate that its prevalence is over 53% in Pakistan. The majority of individuals experiencing psychological conditions like panic disorder, depressive and anxious states, etc do have emotional stress as an underlying factor. Apparently, emotional stress seems essential for everyday functioning and meeting day-to-day challenges, however, chronic emotional stress changes our ability to function efficiently. The changes are not limited to daily life. Instead, they take place psychologically and physiologically.
What is Emotional Stress?
Emotional stress is the psychological strain and uneasiness produced by situations of danger, threat, and loss of personal security or by internal conflicts, frustrations, loss of self-esteem, and grief. When we are under emotional stress after any such situation, it can keep us preoccupied and activates various regions in the brain, which include the area that controls our emotions, cognitions, and learning, i.e., the amygdala, frontal cortex, and hippocampus, respectively. When a person experiences emotional stress, the autonomic nervous system dominates, releasing cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. These stress hormones increase palpitation and blood pressure and direct all energy from the rest of the body to start a fight or flight situation. In situations where the body is under chronic or prolonged stress, the body stays alert for long periods, which can result in experiencing flashbacks, forgetfulness, sleep disturbance, irritability, anger outbursts, and negative feelings about oneself.
This stress is perceived differently by every individual. Some people develop resilience consequently and have a higher threshold to experience the same response as someone with less tolerance. Emotional stress can occur due to burnout, financial stress, accidents, bullying, and experiencing natural disasters. Emotional stress can result from poor coping skills, bad past experiences, childhood traumas, insecure attachment styles, bad parenting, and lack of support. These precursors put an individual on the verge of perceiving emotional stress as more devastating than others. Emotional stress can be disabling. Evidence shows that amygdala hyperactivity makes our frontal cortex dormant, which means that our ability for judgment, thinking, and cognition slows down. Consequently, our frontal cortex isn’t decoding the threatening situation at an optimal level.
Emotional stress can be overt and observable in people suffering from it. It can develop various symptoms such as autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis, and eczema, somatic symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, bodily aches, headaches, sleep disturbance, e.g., insomnia or hypersomnia, hypertension, etc. These diseases increase the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, and migraine. Managing emotional stress can prevent individuals from a number of diseases. There are various therapies that can help prevent emotional stress e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution Focused Brief Therapy, Imagery Therapy along with pharmaceutical intervention.To manage emotional stress, it has to be recognized first. We too often undermine the consequences of the unexplained bodily symptoms that are actually originating from our poor psychological coping skills. Because as C.S. Lewis says, “it’s easier to say my tooth is aching than to say, my heart is broken.”