Dr. Hal Pickett's Thoughts on Stress and the Brain

Some stress is normal, even healthy, but too much can shut parts of your brain down. Dr. Hal explores the "fight, flight or freeze" response, how it affects brain functioning and what to do about it.

“I love my kids; I hate my job. I hate my kids; I love my job. I cannot wait until Friday date night, but I have to find a baby sitter. I wonder if the kids will be OK. I love this movie on TV, but the house is a mess; I should clean. The yard needs mowing, but I do not have time until Saturday; I wonder what the neighbors will think. I have three deadlines at work and the neighbors asked us over for a birthday party celebration on Wednesday night, of all things. The car has a flat—I do not have time for this! Where are my keys? Where are my shoes? Oh crap, I forgot the presentation for work; I have to go back home.”

If this kind of mind-chatter sounds familiar, you are normal and experiencing stress. Stress is a complex process that at its optimal level increases our level of functioning, but when stress is above that optimal level, it greatly decreases our functioning. And if stress continues at that heightened level it can cause physical illness, mental strain and even death.

At the core of stress is the protective “fight, flight or freeze” system in our brain that is mostly controlled by the amygdala in the Limbic system, which is located in a developmentally more primitive part of our brain. The amygdala is on constant surveillance for threat. When one is detected it sends out signals to our brain to release certain chemicals that ready the body for response. The thinking part of brain, once developed, modulates the signals from the amygdala, so that the appropriate readiness is matched with the encounter. 

When you are getting out of bed on the ring of an alarm, for example, the thinking brain signals to the amygdala how much of the fighting juices need to be available. Yes, getting out of bed is normal “stress.” Our bodies need to ready for a normal level of stress or “eustress” for us to function optimally during the day. Eustress is best understood by an inverted “U” on a graph with functioning. Matching the task at hand with the appropriate level of stress readiness is the key. So when we experience too much stress, we rapidly decline in functioning.

Bruce Perry, MD, Ph.D., a world-renowned expert in brain development, describes this idea most eloquently. He explains that the more stress we experience above our optimal level, the more our brain moves further down the developmental line to where it is functioning. So when we are least stressed we have our full abstract thinking brain available to us.  When we are experiencing stress we move to our concrete thinking brain, then down to our feeling brain, down to our reactive brain and then down to our reflexive brain. 

Dr. Perry has fondly referred to the lowest level as our “lizard brain.” This is when we are so stressed out that we react reflexively. And reflex, as you may know, involves no higher brain function. So, in theory, we would be functioning with no thought, feeling or problem solving. We would be simply responding to whatever is in front of us without thinking. So if you want to impress your boss and friends with your knowledge, lower your stress.

Okay, so how do you lower your stress? For those of you who have heard my mantra before, I apologize in advance. It’s relatively simple: eat well, get regular exercise, listen to music, read a good book, take a bubble bath, laugh with friends. Take care of yourself. And if you think you don’t have time to relax because you have too much work, just know that you will get your work done more efficiently and effectively if you lower your stress.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Becky Glander May 24, 2012 at 06:44 PM
What a great blog, Dr. Pickett. We all need a reminder to "slow it down" from time to time.
Clare Kennedy May 24, 2012 at 06:51 PM
I have a question: What are the physical symptoms of too much stress?
Hal Pickett June 14, 2012 at 04:13 PM
Hi Clare, the physical symptoms can be fairly variable. The general symptoms are in the follow up blog to this one. The symptoms can range from sleep disruption to chronic illness. Stress can make you more susceptible to colds or other viruses. You can have trouble concentrating or feeling that you are not at your peak at work. If a person is prone to anxiety or depression it can make those symptoms worse. So Stress can be a nasty creature.


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