Some of us… ok, let’s be honest… most of us don’t consider mental stress as anything other than just that – mental. We don’t consider that it might have any physical impact.
In times of pressure when our resilience is tested we often take ‘another’ ride on life’s emotional roller coaster. During the slippery descents we begin to struggle under the load and a new storyboard runs through the screen of our minds, reading like our worst nightmares that we’re being forced to watch again and again.
The difficult boss placing an unmanageable workload upon you. Looking down the barrel of a big fat ‘F for Fail’ in the upcoming exam. Or the coach opening up the Sunday paper the day after a loss reading yet another article calling for your head.
It’s gut-wrenching stuff and we all have our own unique version of these nightmares.
It’s easy to think symptoms reside only ‘between the ears’ because this is where we feel the most pain. Regardless of the reason or cause, the chemical consequences of stress that often manifest in the brain are for the best part the same amongst us all. The balance of neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine become out of kilter (1). Low dopamine levels (the Pleasure Chemical) might partly explain why when we feel depressed or down we don’t extract the same sense of pleasure out of activities as we did before becoming morose. I’m sure we can all relate, fun just ain’t as fun when we feel crap about the world.
That’s the brain in brief, but what does stress do to the body? Does it do anything at all? And if it does, what are the consequences?
It is unequivocal that exposure to stress over extended periods can have seriously negative health effects beyond the brain, and in many cases it can even be lethal (2). Disease such as congestive heart disease, stroke and hormonal imbalances are amongst the myriad.
Our blood leaves clues as to our internal state of disharmony so it isn’t uncommon for a good doctor to ask for blood tests when you choose to see her after a period of chronic stress. She will often be looking for stress markers in the blood that indicate recuperative action needs to be taken. Markers like glucose, prolactin and cortisol concentrations all trend upwards during periods of stress (3) and each one of these carry their own consequences.
Prolonged elevated levels of the hormone Cortisol can actually have a substantial negative effect on your state of physical wellness. When high, it surpasses immune function, counteracts insulin which can lead to insulin resistance and ultimately diabetes, and it stifles bone formation increasing the likelihood of osteoporosis.
These consequences can be visually difficult to see. One that isn’t, however, is how cortisol can influence your body composition – that is to say, it reduces muscle mass and increases body fat. Not what you want, I’m guessing?
There have been strong links recognised between people who have habitually high stress levels and abdominal fat (3). Cortisol stimulates the part of the brain that makes it very difficult to make rational food choices, so, after periods of stress people often increase their food intake. Increased food intake without an increase in physical activity leads to the obvious – increased body fat, and specifically abdominal fat.
Couple this with cortisol’s potential to suppress muscle development and you’re now increasing the chance of abdominal fat even further by reducing the size of the engine, your muscle mass, that uses the fuel that burns the fat. A double whammy I believe they call that.
If you’re beginning to feel a little bad right now and dropping your head a bit, well, don’t do that either because postures that suggest you’re sad and depressed also lead to an increase in cortisol (5). When mum said ‘stand up tall, pull your shoulders back and look the world in the eye’ she was actually giving you fantastic hormonal advice. Cheers Mum.
Bottom line is this: stress is sometimes a good thing, but sometimes it isn’t either. Although Cortisol gets a bad wrap at times it also has very useful and necessary functions in the human body. Like all recommendations we’re given on a daily basis, balance is key. Your body is always self-regulating but long term negative stress often leads to hormonal imbalances and that can lead to abdominal fat as one of the symptoms.
If you’re often finding yourself in a cesspool of mental muck then you don’t need me to tell you what to do next. Of the many solutions at your disposal, meditation* and mindfulness practice holds significant scientific weight with reducing stress and improving health. If you haven’t tried these yet it might be worth a shot… you might even lean up a bit.
*Headspace is a good app that makes meditation a little more real world and achievable. Worth a go if you haven’t meditated before
Headspace founder Andy Puddicombe’s excellent Ted Talk
(1) Armario, A. (1996). Acute stress markers in humans: Response of plasma glucose, cortisol and prolactin to two examinations differing in the anxiety they provoke. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 21(1), 17-24.
(2) Brunner, E. (2016). Social factors and cardiovascular morbidity. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.
(3) Epel, E., McEwen, B., Seeman, T., Matthews, K., Castellazzo, G., & Brownell, K. et al. (2000). Stress and Body Shape: Stress-Induced Cortisol Secretion Is Consistently Greater Among Women With Central Fat. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62(5), 623-632.
(4) Armario, A. (1996). Acute stress markers in humans: Response of plasma glucose, cortisol and prolactin to two examinations differing in the anxiety they provoke. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 21(1), 17-24. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0306-4530(95)00048-8
(5) Carney, D., Cuddy, A., & Yap, A. (2010). Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797610383437