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Your Brain on Stress: Understanding the Stress Response

You know that feeling: the hands get clammy and your cheeks are flushed. Your jaw starts to clench and your body tightens. It’s time for fight or flight.  

Written by Sarah Hill
April 11th, 2020

Any stressful situation, brought on either by external circumstances or internal struggles, can be hard to grapple with at times. Even the word “stress” can bring about stress within the body.


Stress, particularly chronic or stress related to an overwhelming sense of trauma, has a profound effect on us. Stress decreases working memory which makes you more prone to poor management decisions and errors. Stress also reduces your lymphocytes which can make you more susceptible to physical illness. It also ages you prematurely. It’s ugly!


The way to find relief from stress and anxiety starts with understanding the stress response process. And that starts with knowing your brain.


What stress is and isn’t

What is stress, exactly? The phrase “stress” was first used by endocrinologist Hans Selye in 1936, who defined it as “the non-specific response of the body to any demand for change.” 


Sensing a need to react, the body will kick into action. The nervous system will shift from a parasympathetic to a sympathetic state, heightening awareness. The adrenal glands release adrenaline throughout the body, priming it for rapid response. If the demand continues, cortisol keeps the body in high alert.


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This reaction to stress is so efficient that many don’t know it’s happening until they are in a full “fight or flight” mode. The Harvard Medical School points out that the brain’s wiring moves so rapidly, the visual centers will slightly lag. It’s like instinctively trying to catch a glass jar before you realize it’s falling.


The key phase is “non-specific,” meaning what stresses one person won’t be the same for another person. There are common stressors, like a loss of a job or a relationship. The demand, though, can be different for everyone.


However, the response looks similar. Much of that is biological. We still keep a part of that primitive instinct, where a lion looming in the distance meant an instant flight. In that way, some stress is good for you! It keeps you focused and prepared for change.


What most struggle with, however, is chronic stress, where the body is perpetually in an aroused state. In our modern age, our lions usually don’t look like lions but they still feel like lions. 


Is stress all in your mind?


In thinking about stress, it’s good to think about the brain as full of electricity. It won’t shock you (at least not with static!) but brainwaves are electrical currents that guide how you think, feel and respond.


Scientists have identified six types of brainwaves that can be categorized in two ways:


Delta, Theta and Alpha brainwaves are considered “slow.” When activated, the brain is in a more relaxed or quiet state. For example, Delta brainwaves help you fall into a deep sleep. Someone who is meditating or taking a stroll through a garden is exercising the alpha waves. You came up with an amazing idea while driving on the freeway? You can thank your theta brainwaves.


Beta, High Beta and Gamma brainwaves are “fast.” When they are dominant, the brain is active and engaged. Significant cognitive activities are the beta’s terrain, while deep concentration is all gamma waves at work. 


When you are stressed, the beta brainwaves kick into hyper-motion, sending messaging through the Amygdala, which controls emotional processing. Your brain produces high beta, which makes the brainwaves fast and active. It activates the nervous and adrenal systems, preparing the body for a physical reaction to a stressor. In an optimal situation, once the stressor is gone, the high beta waves lessen and you return to a relaxed state. 


Stress is gone, life is good.


But if you have too many High Beta brainwaves that aren’t addressed, the body cannot come back to a relaxed state. That leads to sickness, burnout and other physical or emotional side effects. 


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There’s good news about stress and the brain.


Technological advances enable researchers to understand the nature of brainwaves. An electroencephalogram (EEG) evaluates the electrical activity in the brain. Using neurofeedback and immersive media in virtual reality and augmented reality devices, you can see how brainwaves shift from fast to slow. 


That’s how Healium came into being. The goal is to make you more aware of how to self manage your fast brain patterns, try to increase your alpha, and boost gamma asymmetry which is associated with feelings of positivity.


You have healing powers inside yourself to quiet your mind.


About the Author

Sarah Hill, a former interactive TV news journalist at NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates in Missouri, gained recognition for pioneering interactive news broadcasting using Google Hangouts. She is now the CEO of Healium, the world’s first biometrically powered VR/AR channel, helping those with stress, anxiety, insomnia, and other struggles through biofeedback storytelling. With patents, clinical validation, and over seven million views, she has reshaped the landscape of immersive media.

Written by Sarah Hill
April 11th, 2020
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