Our Brains: Behind the Scenes
To understand how stress impacts our brains and wellbeing, it’s helpful to understand a little about how the brain functions. The brain is made up of different parts that each perform tasks using energy from the body. When one part of the brain is engaged, the other parts have limited access to that energy; much like the power in our homes when turning on a large power tool, and seeing the lights dim in another part of the house.
Since, one of our brain’s primary functions is to keep us safe, the part of the brain that governs our survival instincts may take over if we find ourselves in a dangerous or emotionally stressful situation. This leaves less energy for other parts, such as those that help store memories and perform reasoning, resulting in their reduced ability to function. This can explain why we may be more forgetful or less able to think rationally when we are experiencing an especially difficult event.
Why Stress Impacts Us
Stress response is the body’s natural reaction to threatening situations, activating our body’s fight, flight or freeze instincts. It is intended to give us the boost of energy and strength needed to get to safety. Stress can be harmful however when we are exposed to it over long periods of time and build up stress hormones in our bodies – this can damage our brain’s ability to think rationally and has even been linked to certain chronic illnesses.
The good news is that there are key things that we can do to counteract the effects of stress on our brains and lay the foundation for building resilience.
Ideas for Protecting Our Wellbeing
- Establishing some control over our situations. The brain craves predictability – focus on the things within your control by establishing a routine to insert predictability into the day.
- Getting a good night’s sleep. Our brains need time to repair, restore and recharge; important functions which, in some case, only occur during sleep. Lack of sleep can make stress worse by causing certain parts of the brain to not function as well thus reducing our resiliency. Try going to bed and waking up at the same time every day as well as creating a relaxing sleep environment.
- Getting organized. Organization helps our brains predict when we are likely to feel stressed. Try using strategies to help manage workloads and help reduce stress such as task lists or daily schedules.
- Getting physically active. Whether moderate or vigorous, exercise reduces levels of stress hormones in the body. It also stimulates production of other chemicals in the brain that are natural pain killers and mood elevators.
- Getting help when needed. Reaching out to family, friends or the Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) can help us work through and identify solutions to better manage our stress.
- Changing our attitudes toward stress. Stress in our lives is inevitable, and sometimes uncontrollable, but we can control how we respond to stress. Strive for healthy responses to stress.
Access EFAP 24/7 through mobile app, by web or by phone. My EAP, workhealthlife.com, 1-844-880-9142
Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School and WGBH Educational Foundation. (2008). Healthy Sleep. Retrieved from healthysleep.med.harvard.edu:
Harvard Women’s Health Watch. (2018, August). Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved from www.health.harvard.edu:
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