How chronic stress leads to intractable health problems

Whatever the source of stress or threat, whether it’s a real threat in our immediate surroundings or an imagined threat constructed in our conscious or subconscious mind a signal is sent to the hypothalamus which then initiates a stress response in our body. The hypothalamus communicates the stress response to the body via two routes, one route is via the nervous system (the autonomic nervous system), the other route is via a hormonal pathway for the HPA axis.
Adrenal exhaustion HPA axis treatment

 
Over time stress responses become hardwired into the brain
We now know from the new science of neuroplasticity that when any pathway or circuit in the brain is repeatedly used it grows and develops just as we can grow and develop the neural networks involved in learning how to do mental arithmetic, play an instrument or play golf when our brain repeatedly exercises the neural networks involved in producing stress responses brain circuits grow and this can have enormous implications for long-term health and well-being.
 
Our brain is highly evolved to grow and maintain the networks that trigger stress responses to keep this safe in the future, when we’ve been through a long-term period of chronic stress it literally changes the shape of the brain to encourage a greater sensitivity to our perception of threat and danger (stress) to protect us and once created these effects are basically semi-permanently installed to keep a safe in the future.
 
When neuroplasticity develops and installs a new skill in your brain that you want it’s great but when neuroplasticity installs something in your brain that you don’t want it sucks! Prolonged stressful circumstances installs stressful psychology, repeated anxiety thoughts and psychology makes us better by having anxiety the same is true for depression as you exercise the circuits in the brain that are negative, pessimistic, self-loathing etc you become better at constructing this type of depressive psychology in your mind.
 
Over time chronic stress responses exhausted adrenals and lead to chronic health problems
To make matters worse when we over produce cortisol for prolonged period of time our cells become progressively de-sensitised to the effects of cortisol and in response our body demands more cortisol (cortisol-resistance), the combination of increased cortisol production from cortisol-resistance and overactive stress physiology can eventually wear out the adrenal glands resulting in difficult to recover from chronic health situation. The body desperately need more cortisol to manage inflammation and the immune system, your exhausted adrenal glands are unable to make adequate amounts of cortisol, I’ve seen people try to fix this situation by taking remedies to regenerate the adrenal glands but this doesn’t work because this you still have overactive stress physiology hardwired into your brain as soon as you make the adrenal glands stronger dose start to overproduce cortisol again worsening your cortisol-resistance, you become reliant on ever increasing amounts of the adrenal support remedies until eventually sooner or later you’re adrenals become exhausted again.
 
The detrimental effects of imbalanced stress physiology
In the early stages of overactive stress physiology the adrenal glands are still strong and pumping away excessive levels of cortisol, this leads to weakening of the immune system, increased inflammation throughout the body which increases our risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease and in terms of the brain results in the increased release of chemicals called cytokines that increase inflammation and this can result in a loss of synaptic connections and function in key structures in the brain that control mood. Our brain makes a protein called BDNF to protect us from this type of damage and maintain its structures the inflammatory force is greater than the brains ability to protect itself we have a loss of neuroplasticity and a downgrade in the brain and mental health, this understanding explained how in some people mental health problems emerge from prolonged periods of stress whether an adult or childhood, I discuss this new understanding and what to do about it elsewhere see The BDNF Hypothesis
 
There are no remedies that can fix this problem to solution is brain training
This solution to reverse the long-term effects of to toxic long-term stress responses, adrenal exhaustion, loss of neuroplasticity lies not in any pharmaceuticals, nutritional supplements or herbal remedies, there is no new exotic herbal remedy you share with you below to correct this problem, when you understand how neuroplasticity works, it’s that this is a problem of the wiring of the brain not the chemistry of the brain, then you understand that the solution has to be rewiring the brain.
 
Now they your brain has built up a highly evolved ‘on-stress’ switch what you need to do is develop the highly developed ‘off-stress’ switch to compensate, you literally want to learn and hardwire into your brain a superhuman ability to switch stress responses off more quickly and efficiently than let’s say the average person; this is a practical and achievable therapeutic solution to this problem. Mainstream medicine uses pharmaceuticals such as benzo diazepam or Valium that tranquilize and sedate the whole brain to dampen down this problem, the Internet is full of suggestions about natural anti-stress or relaxing herbs such as theanine, ashwagandha, passion flower et al and although these remedies may leave you less tranquilize than have fewer side effects they are still not the solution, brain training is the solution.
 
Your brain was trained overproduce the stress responses and it needs to be trained to switch them off and the networks that produce excessive stress physiology need to be dismantled, changing hardwiring in the brain requires intensive brain training, there are no remedies that can substitute for brain training; you couldn’t for example hardwire into the brain the ability to play the piano by taking a remedy likewise there are no remedies that can hardwire the ability to switch off stress responses into your brain. A good analogy is you couldn’t build an abdominal sixpack just by taking a stack of remedies and protein shakes you have to actually put in hundreds of hours of exercises that stress and pushed the abdominal muscles to the edge of what they’re capable of achieving which stimulates them to grow; remedies and protein shakes are just additional helpers it’s the training that matters and it’s the same in the brain. For anyone who’s seen The Matrix you cannot just have new abilities like the ability to fly a helicopter installed like a software download into your brain in the real world you have to actually hundreds of hours of helicopter flying lessons oh and by the way if you think you are living in the matrix you’re suffering from delusions.
 
Rewiring the brain stress physiology
I’ve seen studies showing that in as little as 30 hours of brain training scans control structural changes in the brain but my clinical experience is 30 hours is not enough, if you want to produce profound and permanent or at least long-lasting therapeutic changes in stress physiology that change your health you need to do at least 45-50 hours of repetitive intensive brain training; if you did 20 minutes a day it would take about 4 to 5 months to complete.
 
For most people I recommend beginning with 45-50 hours of training the brain to switch you into a deeply relaxed physiological state, the way the autonomic nervous system is organised is that as you activate a state of relaxed physiology you simultaneously switch off or deactivate stress physiology, so depending how you want to look at it you could say your training your brain to switch on the relaxation response or you your brain to switch off stress responses, it’s the same process.
 
Training the brain to switch off stress responses is a great place to start because it reduces the cortisol and inflammation which is negatively impacting your body and brain but you may need to go further than this, when other key structures in the brain have become hardwired to overproduce stress responses then they need to be remodelled also. The amygdala for example works like a burglar alarm scanning the environment for threats and if it sees a match it triggers a stress response, unfortunately our amygdala can become excessively overactive as is the case in PTSD and complex PTSD (complex PTSD is post-traumatic stress disorder that is built up gradually progressively over a long period of time rather than by a single traumatic event as is the case in classic PTSD), the amygdala may also be inappropriately programmed and identify things that are not really threatening as potential threats, a phobia of spiders would be an example of the amygdala being incorrectly programmed. We can literally reduce the physical size and density of connections in our amygdala to reduce it being overactive with brain training techniques such as mindfulness-based meditation. We can also re-educate the amygdala, essentially install new software to stop firing inappropriately with techniques like exposure-therapy, I practice a type of gentle progressive exposure therapy assisted with natural antianxiety herbs to make the process easier to perform and I believe more effective.
 
The hippocampus is a structure in the brain that stores complex emotional memories and if your mind repeatedly accesses stress provoking traumatic emotional memories stored in the hippocampus you going to want to engage in some type of psychotherapy to access and remodel traumatic memories. Although it’s true that we cannot change the past but what we can change is the size and significance of those past traumas in your present day-to-day brain activity, you can reduce how often your mind accesses those memories furthermore we now know that we can remodel or reshape memories so that when we do access them with a different feeling about them, what was once traumatic can become less traumatising, this may naturally occur over time however sometimes it the healing process is to slow or it becomes stuck; with good therapy you can restart and speed up the healing process of remodelling traumatic memories.
 
The amygdala and stress responses
The Amygdala: the part of the brain storing scary and fearful memories that trigger unwanted stress responses and even blocks and dumbs down the conscious thinking parts of the brain, so-called amygdala hijacking, causing our brain to be run by fear and stress rather than clear conscious thinking.
 
It is far from fully understood how different parts of the brain work, the latest understanding of the role of the amygdala is that it is directly involved with:
our emotional well-being,
it may play an important role in our complex social interactions.,
it may be the primary part of the brain that stores memories of scary and threatening scenarios,
it sends out the alarm signal to the rest of the brain to produce a fight or flight stress response,
it becomes conditioned by repeated exposure to scary and threatening scenarios to produce fight or flight stress responses,
it can send out strong signals that dumb down our conscious thinking brain so that we just react on instinct when it senses significant danger.
 
In simple terms you can think of the amygdala as the main part of the brain that scans the outside world looking for potential threats and when it detects danger it alarms us switching on a fight or flight stress response and when it perceives the danger is significant enough it comes down conscious thinking, hijacks the brain and makes us react with basic protective instincts.  The two primary instinctual responses and amygdala hijacking will cause are either to drive us away from and avoid the stress, in other words be afraid of the scenario or to become aggressive and protect ourselves, the classic example of this is road rage.  Driving is inherently dangerous and threatening and all too often triggers an aggressive amygdala hijacking, what happens is the amygdala senses a threat level that requires immediate protective action and shut up the conscious thinking (civilising) frontal cortex of the brain so that we temporarily lose our temper, swearing, shouting and even driving dangerously and aggressively quite out of character with how we normally behave when the cortex of our brain is fully functioning, thinking and moderating our behaviour.  Incidentally one of the effects of alcohol on the brain is to dumb down the functioning of the frontal cortex just like the amygdala does when it senses significant danger sometimes resulting in as a gaming aggressively, stupidly and out of character.
 
Brain science is never simple and the amygdala doesn't have only hijacked our thinking brain it can also stimulate good and creative behaviour in response to negative feedback.
 
Amygdala hijacking anxiety treatment
Our senses are constantly scanning our world both externally and internally feeding information to a part of the brain called the thalamus, the thalamus is like a mail sorting office or switchboard passing on the sensory information to the relevant parts of the brain.  A brief incomplete picture is quickly sent to the amygdala which performs a quick scan to check for signs of danger, it takes twice as long for all the sensory information to be related to the cortex (24 milli-seconds as opposed to 12 milli-seconds).  If no danger is detected by the amygdala the cortex -the thinking part of our brain- will deal with the situation as it thinks fit, however it is the amygdala detects danger it will instantly activate a fight or flight stress response within the autonomic nervous system and send a strong "suppressing" signal to the cortex so that we don’t overthink the dangerous situation and just react instinctually.  See diagram below.  The amygdala can spot danger quickly and save your life, I remember when I was 16 and a gang of football hooligans surrounded me and attempted to assault me for years I perplexed by how some parts of the experience were recorded in my memory in exceptional detail almost in slow motion and the completely blank gap in my memory.  In the blank gap it was as if I was teleported from one side of the road to the other, to escape must have ran straight across a dual carriageway but I have no recollection how I did this, in my memory I saw the first fist being thrown, then there is a blank moment, then I just appeared on the other side of 4 lanes of busy traffic.  The problem is when it xxx  ADD internal stress triggered like allergies
 
 
Amygdala hijacking Treatment
 
The Psychology of Human Stress Responses
Stress in Humans.
Why Humans Often Produce Totally Unnecessary Stress Responses
 
Interesting as the above brain anatomy may be it does not as yet the lead us to any useful solutions to the negative health consequences of unwonted stress responses; understanding; psychological approaches on the other hand do.
 
Leaving the science of new row anatomy behind for the moment let me propose a simplistic view that identifies attributes of human psychology that give rise to problematic stress responses and more importantly that we can actually work with and change to stop the problem.
 
One unique quality the human mind possesses is our capacity for thinking about the future.  We are capable of conceiving future events, anticipating and planning for potential problems in a way that no other animal can do. 
[[ Alternative Simplified Version: for thesake of simplicity we could say that there are two special capabilities to the human brain that give rise to inappropriate and unwonted stress responses.  Firstly our human brains in this capacity for making connections and imagining future scenarios means that we can construct completely hypothetical stressful thoughts that then tell the more primitive parts of the brain that we are in danger and gave him produce real physical stress responses that are unnecessary and inappropriate.  Secondly the human brain has a huge capacity for learning and installing automatic behaviour and responses into the subconscious parts of our brain.  An example of a good learned stress response would be when a child touches a hot pan and burnt its hand or get shouted at it will eventually program into its subconscious to automatically senses the potential threat whenever it is near hot pans be careful not to get burned in the future.  An example of an unwanted learned stress response would be a child that was bull eat or teased at school may learn to automatically avoid any situation remotely similar, so for example they may produce stress responses and or avoid groups of girls or boys or even leaving the house.
 
So our highly evolved human brains are capable of learning to do an amazing number of useful complex things such as driving a car automatically without hardly having to think about it and complex social behaviours, but unfortunately our human brains are also capable of learning and installing programs that produce unnecessary stress responses.  It could be that the stress response was appropriate at the time to try and keep you safe but your circumstances have moved on and once a protective program has been installed in your subconscious it may continue activating stress responses that are unwonted and unwarranted.  You could say these programs are running on outdated information.  Alternatively it may be that a particular learned sense of danger programmed into our subconscious is unwonted and did not serve us well from the outset; for example if as a child of spider fell on you, you jumped and screamed and everyone around you laughed, the intense distress you experience because of the combined shock of the spider and the feeling of embarrassment and humiliation of people and that you could for evermore program into your subconscious to fear spiders.
 
Also no other animal possesses our capacity for conceiving the future and worrying about bad things happening in the future.  In summary our amazing human brain is capable of thinking up hypothetical stressful scenarios and being programmed with more sophisticated subconscious stress provoking programs than any other living creature and a primitive instinct to all parts of our brain can't tell the difference between real threats in the environment or hypothetical threats conjured up by our complex human brains.  Remembering threats from our past and having the capacity to worry about threats in the future is of course a good that may keep us safe when done in a balanced and proportionate way, however all to often our super abilities to think about these things causes us to experience unnecessary physical stress responses . 
 
Perhaps in the far distant future our brains will have evolved to be able to differentiate between real life threatening situations that warrant a full fight or flight stress response and the hypothetical imaginations of stressful scenarios that don't need us to produce a full fight or flight stress response at this moment in time.  These inappropriate stress responses not only feel uncomfortable but can actually damage our health.  We may produce stress responses so frequently that isn't enough time between them for our system to wind down and going to relaxation mode.  The excessive perhaps almost continuous state of stress this produces can have detrimental health consequences; it can perpetually elevate our blood pressure which can have dire health consequences, it may perpetually elevate our levels of the stress hormone cortisol eventually weakening our immune system and increasing the likelihood of developing abdominal fat and acquired diabetes, it can clamp the muscles in your intestines causing not only poor digestive but irritable bowel syndrome, it may chronically divert blood circulation away from our glandular and reproductive systems decreasing natural fertility.
 
This is the human condition and until we evolve superior brains capable of differentiating real from imagined stress and better at uninstalling unwanted learned stress responses will have to work with the brains we've got.  We can train ourselves to switch on a strong relaxation response which by definition switches off all current stress responses in or body and mind, teaching you how to do this is the main purpose of this book.  The other thing we can do is use hypnosis and NLP techniques to uninstall and stop subconscious stress provoking programs (memories and automatically behaviours) to reduce the number and frequency of stress responses that we make in the first place.]]
 
normal every day life experiences provoke unwonted and unnecessary stress responses because our subconscious mind finds significant similarity between some aspects of the circumstances around us and some earlier stressful memories
stress responses are PROTECTIVE and ON YOUR SIDE EMOTIONAL MANAGERS THAT ARE ON YR SIDE AND ONLY TRYING TO HELP Y BUT ARE STUCK RUNNING ON OUTDATED INFORMATION AND NEED TO UPDATED AND RE-EDUCATED
 
REWORK SIMPLIFY AND CLARIFY many things can cause stress in humans the stress response can be programmed into our subconscious mind and run automatically without us understanding it will thinking about it, and it may appear to be an appropriate and make no sense for example being afraid of open spaces or speaking in public.  Alternatively we may initiate a stress response from our complex thinking brain for example we may worry about the future and construct a potential threatening scenarios that may or may not ever happen in a way that no other animal can do.  We humans are also highly social animals capable of making many connections between people things and events and experience stress by thinking about threats to our status within our social network.  We humans also have long memories and our capacity for analytical thought enables us to from our memories and construct complex stressful thoughts.  Our self protective system is designed to do this to work out potential threats and protect us however the interaction of or memory, analytical brain, and the primitive parts of my brain that cannot differentiate between just thinking about vessels and arias and address of the scenario actually happening causes us to experience far more stress than we need to or is good for a health.
Funny actually please give me something to do
 
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Hi my name is Peter Smith I specialise in treating and coaching people how to live well with mental health problems, digestive health problems/IBS, sleep problems and type II diabetes using natural therapies.
I used these techniques to overcome and live well with my own bipolar disorder and IBS. I've been in practice as a natural medicine practitioner since 1988.
 

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