Isn't stress all in the head?
No, it’s not.
The impacts of stress are experienced throughout the body and the physical brain, as well as the thinking mind.
The stress response begins in the brain. The effects of stress on the brain can be beneficial or detrimental, depending on the type of stressor and the duration of exposure to the stressor. Chronic stress can result in changes to nerve structure and function, as well as the death of neurons, which may accelerate the process of brain degeneration.
But the effects of chronic stress reach far beyond the brain. Negative emotional states and responses, once entrenched, may themselves operate as profound psychogenic (physical illnesses that are believed to arise from emotional or mental stressors) sources, contributing to chronic stress response activation – notably, with excessively high cortisol levels, until they plummet with adrenal exhaustion - and adverse neural programming.
The impact of these imbalances in the body’s communication between the brain and the nervous and hormonal systems over time can influence other bodily systems.
The body is a complex web of interconnected systems. What affects one system affects all systems. To consider and treat stress and burnout only through the lens of the mind is to ignore the profound impacts of the stress response throughout the body. The brain affects the body, just as the body affects the brain.
Effective stress management should therefore include a focus on the stress response throughout the body and brain – including, and beyond, our thoughts and emotions - in supporting our resilience to stress.
How do the physical brain and the body experience burnout?
Burnout is beyond stress. It is the state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion caused by chronic, prolonged stress.
Where stress can be useful when applied to specific, acute circumstances, burnout is a state of collapse, of emptiness, hopelessness and disengagement.
Physically, burnout is characterised by excessively low cortisol levels. The toll on the brain and body is heavy, and recovery can be a long, arduous process. Treatment for burnout tends to focus primarily on psycho-social support, overlooking the tremendous physical impacts that can increase the risk of illness and disease, and which exert further pressure on the brain.
Seyle’s General Adaption Syndrome
This model presents three phases of stress, as a means to distinguish between “healthy” and “unhealthy” responses to stress.
1) Alarm – for example, you take an exam. A distress signal is sent to the brain, which activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) response and releases cortisol - to prepare you to handle the stressful event. This is what our stress response was designed to handle.
2) Resistance – this phase is all about feeling “wired and tired”, or stressed-out. If the stressor has passed (e.g., the exam is behind you), the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system) tries to return the body to normal. But if the stressor continues – as in a stressful job or an unhealthy relationship – cortisol remains elevated.
3) Exhaustion – this is where we experience burnout. Following a prolonged period of stress, a person’s body is no longer able to fight stress. Adrenal exhaustion leads to insufficient cortisol levels, slowing down all bodily systems.
“About a third of workers experience chronic work stress and are "often or very often burned out or stressed" and “identify work as a major source of stress and anxiety.”
Psychiatr Serv., 2007
What if change feels REALLY HARD at the moment?
Burnout, depression and anxiety can rob us of the energy we need to make dietary and lifestyle changes. If this is how you are feeling – then just take small steps, as you feel possible.
Working together, we would take only the steps you are able to comfortably and sustainably make. Those small steps add up.