Whether we like it or not, modern life comes with a long list of unavoidable stressors. The pressures and responsibilities of adult life have always taken a toll on our well-being, but the past few years seem to have raised the bar: staying digitally connected at all times, hustling to make ends meet, navigating economic crises and a global pandemic – it’s no wonder our minds can’t catch a break. And while, societally, we are starting to take small steps toward normalcy, with movements such as slow living gaining significant traction, mental peace is unfortunately not something everyone can afford.
If you struggle with stress and are interested in ways to unburden the load, keep reading. We’ll walk you through the physiology of stress, how chronic stress can impact our lives, and how EEG biofeedback – or neurofeedback – can help with stress management.
Table of Contents
What Exactly Is Stress?
Stress is a normal physiological and psychological response that occurs when we’re undergoing a difficult situation. It’s a natural, adaptive reaction that helps us respond to threats and challenges, with the body releasing specific hormones that sharpen our focus and reaction speed.
How it works
The mechanism of stress involves some intricate neural pathways. They include the cerebral cortex (which helps us think), the hypothalamus (which controls various bodily functions), the limbic system (which deals with emotions), the pituitary gland (which controls our hormone production), the thalamus (which helps us perceive things through our senses), and the reticular activating system (or RAS, responsible for wakefulness and attention). They all come together to orchestrate our stress response and form two important pathways: the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis. Activation of these pathways is triggered by the amygdala, which identifies potential threats in our immediate environment.
The HPA axis is involved in the body’s prolonged response to stress, releasing cortisol, while the SAM axis triggers physiological changes through the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, facilitating speedy bodily reactions.
Stress can be either acute or chronic. Each has a different set of symptoms.
Symptoms of acute stress
Acute stress develops as a response to an immediate threat. It is short-lived and usually goes away once the threat disappears. Symptoms include:
- pupil dilation (for improved visual accuracy)
- rapid breathing (for improved blood flow)
- muscle tension (for improved reaction speed)
- difficulty concentrating (as the body uses its resources to heighten physical capabilities, and cognition takes a back seat)
- digestive issues
The SAM axis, which regulates the body’s fight or flight response, can become dysregulated. If the sympathetic nervous system remains chronically activated due to ongoing stressors, it can contribute to issues such as high blood pressure, increased heart rate, and cardiovascular disease. This prolonged “fight or flight” response can impact the body’s overall stress tolerance. It can also lead to changes in bodily functions and problems such as irritable bowel disease, insulin resistance, and insomnia.
Symptoms of chronic stress
Chronic stress develops due to ongoing stressors, such as financial difficulties, job insecurity, or divorce. It can also develop as a result of day-to-day difficulties owed to competitive work environments or overstimulation. Symptoms include:
- chronic headaches
- poor immune function
- digestive issues
- changes in appetite
- social withdrawal
Much like the SAM axis, the HPA axis, strongly associated with chronic stress, can stop functioning properly. HPA axis dysregulation is associated with symptoms such as fatigue, irritability, brain fog, and depression, and with diseases such as Cushing’s Syndrome and Addison’s Disease.
The long-term impact of chronic stress
While we’ve come to normalize living with chronic stress, its long-term impact on our health can be an unexpected and burdensome reality. Its effects vary from person to person and depend on the intensity and length of the stressful events, as well as on factors such as overall health and immune function. Potential impacts of long-term stress include:
- mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety and PTSD
- immune system suppression and increased susceptibility to illnesses and infections
- sleep disturbances
- weight gain and obesity
- hormonal imbalances
- decreased sexual function
- insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes
Treatment options for managing stress
In the quest for a healthier and happier life, finding ways to cope with stressors and minimize associated health hazards is a must. While everyone knows that improving sleep and working out are important for stress management, they may not always be enough – or possible, for that matter, as many of us lead lives where time seems to be perpetually insufficient.
Mindfulness, meditation, and spirituality are tools that are often neglected but can prove to be instrumental in the quest for tranquility. As are playfulness, creativity, laughter, and socialization.
For those moments where nothing seems to work, however, there is biofeedback.
How biofeedback is used in stress management
Biofeedback is a technique that enables people to take charge of how their bodies respond to various stimuli. By providing real-time insights into bodily processes such as heart rate, breathing, and brain wave activity, biofeedback therapists can help improve the body’s (sometimes faulty) response to stress. The following types of biofeedback are oftentimes used to help relieve symptoms of stress:
- Heart rate variability (HRV) biofeedback, which can help regulate heart rate patterns and improve relaxation
- Electromyography (EMG) biofeedback, which can help identify areas of muscle tension and consciously relax them
- Respiratory biofeedback, which teaches controlled breathing and activates the body’s relaxation response for stress reduction
While we are strong believers in the efficacy of biofeedback through and through, at Tennessee Neurofeedback we specialize in the technique that we believe is most powerful in helping individuals take charge of their wellbeing: EEG biofeedback, or neurofeedback, for short.
Neurofeedback for stress reduction
With neurofeedback, we use something called an electroencephalography to measure brainwave patterns and identify areas of dysregulation. With stress, these areas can include the amygdala, the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the hypothalamus. We then target these areas by training the brainwave patterns associated with stress and relaxation to self-regulate. For example, we may try to heighten brain activity in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for relaxation, while reducing the activity in the amygdala, which is in charge of emotional responses.
With neurofeedback, we can teach the brain to minimize the symptoms of both acute and chronic stress, improve mood, and minimize the negative health outcomes associated with chronic stress over time. It takes between 40 and 60 thirty minute sessions with our certified neurofeedback technicians to reap these benefits – long term: once the brain learns a better, healthier way of functioning, it will continue to exercise its new-found skills and make them even stronger over time.
Stress can, and should, be outsmarted. By embracing strategies such as mindfulness, creativity, and play, and employing techniques such as neurofeedback, we can pave the way for happier lives. To book your first session with Tennessee Neurofeedback, connect with us today.