Mental Health Pt. 2

The Science of Stress

Everyone experiences stress. The body’s natural response to stress is to energize the body to help it meet any necessary challenges. We hear all the time that we need to lower stress levels and relax. Here’s a better way to look at stress: when in a “stressful” situation, perceive it as a positive experience - an experience where God is going to show up and do what only He can do. Positive stress is an opportunity to let your body’s natural physiological response do what it was created to do. “Perceiving events negatively is linked to a 43% decrease in health over the next twelve months.” In other words, when we recognize stress drawing near and think this is going to be bad, I better brace myself, our overall physical health is affected. The body is intelligently designed to cope with stress, but when we try to take control of stress by bull-heading our way through, the body’s natural response hinders us rather than helps us.  

When your body experiences a stressful event, the synapses, where nerve signals are transmitted, fire neurons and send you into fight, flight, or freeze mode, releasing adrenaline. Both the neurons and synapses require energy to function and after they have been fired, they must replenish their chemical supply to maintain hormonal balance (homeostasis). The adrenaline regulates after about one minute. While the neurons are resupplying, our brains go into neural fatigue. We can think of this like our brains going on “low power mode.” Everything still functions but the synapses begin to shut down momentarily to allow rest. The strength of information carried by the synapses weakens. This is a momentary process, however, largely negative stressful events or continual stress can be catastrophic to the chemical resupply process.

Long-term neural fatigue can lead to depression because it stops the resupply of proteins and other chemicals the brain needs for synapses to function properly. Also, long-term neural fatigue continually releases cortisol. Cortisol is the chemical the body releases to elevate energy levels, but high levels of cortisol kill brain cells in the hippocampus affecting memory and emotions. Cortisol elevates sugar levels and blood pressure, making the body more susceptible to heart attack or stroke. At this point the body has entered brain dysregulation, meaning the brain is not regulating itself as it should because of chemical imbalance.

Allow me to paint a picture of brain dysregulation for you. Imagine your brain is a big, beautiful oak tree. The roots function as the synapses in your brain. One day an evil lawn gnome walks up to the tree with an axe and starts hacking at the roots of the tree. The gnome is stress and the axe is cortisol. The tree’s natural healing process is to produce sap and soak up as many nutrients from the soil as possible, but the lawn gnome keeps swinging and the axe has done so much damage that the tree’s healing process cannot be properly implemented. In the same way, when there is too much cortisol and not enough neural proteins to replenish the synapses, the brain is physically incapable of functioning at the level it is designed to. Decision-making skills are significantly affected and depression can set in. Any stresses experienced during brain dysregulation may result in feelings of guilt, poor self-esteem, lack of confidence, and the expectation that things will go wrong.

A vicious cycle of negative perception of stress is all too easy, physically speaking. Bracing ourselves and expecting stress to be bad for us is unhealthy because it prolongs the body’s natural stress responses, inhibiting homeostasis. We can be left vulnerable to neural fatigue and even brain dysregulation. Praise God, we are not helpless or left victims of physiological fate. There are steps we can take to give our brains what they need to restock chemical supplies, equipping our brains to continue to function at their best.

1.View stress as a positive event.

Now, this is extremely difficult for many people because our body releases adrenaline and we interpret the body’s natural response as anxiety. Think of the body’s response as its war chant. Compare the experience to movies where Kings and Generals pump up their troops before battle or how a coach inspires his team before a big game. What you feel is natural and it’s not bad. Viewing stress as a positive event means you hand the situation over to God, trusting that God has equipped you for whatever comes your way.

2. Give yourself time to process after the event and stay away from back to back stressful events.

Your synapses and neurons need time to replenish. Create healthy boundaries so that you have time after a stressful event to take a nap or do something else you find relaxing. Also, try to eliminate back to back stressful events. Sometimes life happens and we can’t control how the stressful events unfold, however, we do have control of how to structure our routines.

3. Increase your BDNF production.

The brain requires specific chemicals and proteins for the neurons to fire properly. BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is known to extend the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses. Our bodies can increase the production of BDNF by implementing particular health practices:

Here are some helpful suggestions:

    • Exercise consistently at an elevated heart rate for 30 minutes 4 to 5 times a week. (EX: Run, walk, ride a bike, take a pilates class)

    • Fast or restrict calorie intake intermittently. Do not fast for more than 3 days without a Doctor’s approval. Restricted calorie intakes, such as the Daniel Fast or portion control, can be done over extended periods of time. However, the benefit is found in intermittent restrictive calorie intake, so consider 7 to 10 days.

    • Cut out refined or synthetic sugars from your diet completely. If a food or drink has the word “sugar,” “syrup,” or something “-lose” in the ingredients list, keep it out of your diet. There are over 70 words the food industry uses to try and hide sugar in their products, so please educate yourself and be aware of what you ingest. Organic fruits, honey, and agave are acceptable sources of natural sugar. Fasting sugar for a minimum of 90 days will give your brain the optimal chance to restock its BDNF supply.

    • Take or expose yourself (sit in the sun) to Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been found to help regulate insulin (sugar) levels.

    • Drink organic green tea. One to two cups a day is beneficial over coffee because it contains amino acids that increase neurotransmitter activity, proven to lower anxiety and cortisol levels.

    • Expose yourself to socially stimulating environments. Keeping the brain stimulated is excellent for overall mental health, and we should expose ourselves to external environments as often as possible. (EX: join a class or connect group, commit to attending public events for a minimum of 30 min even if you don’t feel up for it)

4. Pray specific, intentional prayers.

“Contemplating God actually reduces stress, which in turn prevents the deterioration of dendrites [the tree like structures that neurons travel through] and increases neuroplasticity [the process of neurogenesis]. …Spiritual practices strengthen neural functioning in specific parts of the brain that aid in lowering anxiety and depression, enhancing social awareness and empathy, and improving cognitive function,” writes one reviewer of Dr. Newberg’s book How God Changes Your Brain.

This article was adapted from A Joy Unequaled. All Rights Reserved.

Next in Part 3: Thought Management and the Beauty of Sabbath

  • Prayer and thought correlate with the same physiological outcomes

  • Salvation is described as the “helmet” within the Armor of God. Salvation offers us protection within our mindsets

  • Sabbath (atonement) gives us access to true rest, which is a continual event we can participate in.

  1. Health Psychol. September 31, 2012. (5):677-84. doi.10.1037/a0026743. Pub December 26, 2011.

  2. Schneider, Tony. Explorations in Mental Health Series: The Clinician, The Brain, and I; Neuroscientific Findings and the Subjective Self in Clinical Practices. (2013). Page 147.  Routtledge Publishing, NY.

  3. Schneider, Tony. Page 148.

  4. American Institute of Stress.

  5. Schneider, Tony. Page 148.

  6. Medina, John. Brain Rules. (2014). Page 57. Pear Press, Seattle, WA.

  7. Mental Health Daily, March 30, 2015.

  8. Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory, Department of Physiology, Monash Center for Brain and Behaviour, Monash University, Australia.

  9. (Mar. 24) Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

Ashlee Wright