Effects of Chronic Stress

by Dr. Katie Hamilton ND

Society as we know it tends to breed inequality, hierarchy, comparison and continual reinforcement of our “not enoughs”. The toll this takes on our capacity as humans to manage stress is significant. Stress is important. It’s life saving really. Fight or flight. The ability of our ancestors to escape the jaws of a saber-toothed tiger. It activates our sympathetic nervous system which allows our hearts to beat faster, our lungs to fill with more air, and our muscles to draw much needed blood flow, all while slowing down the non-essential functions of our bodies (i.e. digestion) so that we may evade harm and survive. At least this is what it’s meant to do. Unfortunately, with the near constant stresses of modern day life this system upon which we’ve relied on for innate survival, starts to break down. Climbing ladder after ladder, always trying to reach the top but never quite reaching it, stress remains day after day, with the sympathetic nervous system dominating.

Both sides of the nervous system directly interact with the immune system, but their effects are very different. When we slow down, the parasympathetic nervous system, your rest and digest state, takes over. This branch of the nervous system is activated through deep breathing, meditation, yoga, acupuncture, and other relaxation techniques. In this state, our bodies directly activate anti-inflammatory pathways with effects on vital organs including the heart, liver, spleen, and gastrointestinal tract, protecting them from inflammation and oxidative stress – processes at the core of a multitude of human disease (atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, heart disease, and much more).

On the other hand, the sympathetic nervous system is involved in the regulation of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, and stress hormones such as cortisol, which play a role in inflammation. Chronic elevations in stress hormones can hinder our capacity to recover from stress or injury, manifesting as chronic disease such as hypertension, atherosclerosis, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, infertility, immunosuppression, osteoporosis, mental health disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases.

The effects of chronic stress on various areas of our brain are also notable. Chronic stress can change the amygdala such that we become predisposed to anxiety/ fear, it disrupts the hippocampus thus interfering with memory, and it may lead to reductions in prefrontal cortex volume, leading to deficits in decision-making.

As a whole, stress is recognized as an important risk factor which can trigger disease, or worsen/ aggravate an existing condition. The good news? It’s modifiable.

When we observe the stresses of the World, so many of them are not within our immediate control and as such, we must live and work and thrive in an environment rife with challenges.

Fortunately, we are not simply at the mercy of the world around us. Every one of us harbours the capacity for strength and resilience in the face of adversity and while we may not always be able to change the circumstances within which we live, our relationship to these circumstances is always in our control. We have the power to take back, own and love the present moment. We have the power to let in connection rather than focus on comparison which so often leaves us feeling empty and not good enough. We can let go of the ladder, stop trying to climb it, and let in the good that surrounds us. Embrace activities such as yoga, meditation, acupuncture, deep breathing as part of your journey to further unearth the light.

So surrender to all that is out of your control, let the light in and breathe. Light is seen through darkness and if you let yourself breathe it in, it’s everywhere.

Calvillo and G. Parati. (2020). Brain and Heart Dynamics – Chapter 6: Immune System and Mind-Body Medicine: An Overview; p. 97-115.

Radley, J., Morilak, D., Viau, V. & Campeau, S. (2015). Chronic stress and brain plasticity: Mechanisms underlying adaptive and maladaptive changes and implications for stress-related CNS disorders. Neuroscience and Behavioural Reviews; 58: 79-91.