“Stress is the psychological response to resistance to one’s goals.”
With chronic stress, we experience more sinister effects, like facilitation of the neurocircuitry of the HPA axis and pruning of extraneous pathways. Basically – your brain is built to learn. And it does just that, and does it really well. The HPA axis connections learn, becoming stronger and easier to activate, while your “luxury” brain circuits – such as the hippocampus (adorable little brain-fold that looks like a seahorse and is necessary to create memories), parietal lobes (comprehension and creativity), and frontal lobes (behavioral inhibition and complex planning) – all start to atrophy, just like an unused muscle.
However, these chronic changes do not occur with all types of stress. In fact, certain types of stress cause nearly the exact opposite effects, including downregulation of the HPA axis. This is what Selye called “eustress”, but we can simply think of as “good stress”. An example of this is exercise. Even when exercising that causes a transient negative emotions (like when you’re jogging up that one cartoonishly steep hill), it causes dampening of the HPA axis via reduction of cortisol receptors. This is also true of religious and ritual fasting, cold-temperature conditioning, and certain “detox” programs (like the ones where people only drink bathwater for 10 days straight or whatever the hell they do). Despite all these things being somewhat unpleasant stimuli that cause certain brain regions to behave like stress, they all end up protecting us from the long-term stress-mediated effects.
So, what makes one stress different from another to the brain? All of the things that produce the beneficial response – down regulation of the HPA axis – have one thing in common that is necessary to produce this particular response: The person experiencing them perceives a net benefit from the stress. Said another way – how one chooses to experience a stress determines if your brain will respond positively or negatively. If you exercise, or fast, or jump into a freezing lake in your skivvies because you think it is good for you, it ends up being good for you. Similarly, if you experience a negative emotion in response to a stressor, it will end up increasing HPA activation and all the awful downstream cancer/heart attack/stroke/Alzheimer’s risk that comes with it.
Here’s my definition of stress. Stress is the psychological response to resistance to one’s goals. I like that definition because it implies some degree of control - we control our goals. We can reframe them and shape them consciously. In doing so, we have the power to turn down the volume dials on our internal suffering. Next time you are in the checkout aisle, consider leafing through one of those mindfulness magazines, or ask a Millennial how to download a meditation app. ∎
ROBERT PACE, MD
Neurologist and Director of Neuroimmunology, Memorial Institute for Neurosciences www.awarenessties.us/robert-pace Dr. Pace cares for and has expertise in a variety of neurologic conditions. He is passionate about demyelinating conditions of the central nervous system and holds a fellowship from the University of Michigan in clinical neuroimmunology and MS. Along with Dr. Aburashed and Dr. Cote, they make up the provider care team in the MS center at Memorial Healthcare Institute for Neuroscience. He has experience using a variety of immunomodulating and suppressing agents and also lectures nationally regarding treatment options in Multiple Sclerosis.
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