Stress is an everyday part of most of our lives. Just getting through life—dealing with work, kids, family struggles, financial issues, relationship hurdles, and more—requires some serious stress management skills. Often, it seems impossible for absolutely every area of our lives to be in perfect harmony all the time.
So, how do we make it through? We deal. We find ways to deal with our stress enough so we can get through the day and do what we need to do to survive. But, is stress healthy for us? When does everyday stress become too much stress? And what can all this do to our mental health?
Believe it or not, there is a link between stress and mental health, and in the face of stressful challenges, some women might turn to substances to cope. This can eventually lead to addiction and negatively impact your health. If you find yourself turning to substances for stress relief, it may be time to explore the benefits of joining a holistic healing program.
Daily stressors keep us on our toes. Deadlines at work, kid’s science fair projects, the family dog grubbing on the couch, and so forth. These moments add a little splash of cortisol into our bloodstream that gives us that added boost to get through whatever the stressor is. This is normal. And healthy, even.
Chronic stress is an entirely different thing. During these times, stress levels are high, and they remain high—constantly. Maybe it is due to a bad relationship or dysfunctional marriage. You could be unhappy at your job, dealing with a dire financial situation, have an out-of-control teenager, etc. Any one of these things can lead to chronic stress. Put a couple of them together and you will likely find yourself heading for some serious health issues.
In fact, chronic stress has been known to lead to things like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and even cancer. It doesn’t stop there, though. Chronic stress also leads to mental health issues.
For years, mental health clinicians and researchers have been convinced that there exists a link between stress and mental health. Patients would seek help and would be bogged down with all these major issues in life – or, at the very least, a lot of compounded small ones. They would find themselves unable to get out of bed in the morning, even after happy or expected life transitions. Depression, anxiety, panic—all of these things were making their way into the lives of these stressed-out patients. But no one could prove why until now.
As researchers have studied the brains of those with stress disorders (including PTSD) and those without, they have found one main difference—the brain of those with stress disorders has a higher ratio of white matter to gray matter than those who don’t.
So, people who have chronic stress tend to have more white matter. What does that mean? Today’s blog is an important exploration of the scientific connection between these topics. To learn more, get ready for an in-depth look at the brain.
Gray Matter and White Matter
Gray matter is commonly found in the brain, and it is made up of two types of cells: neurons and glia. Neurons have the job of processing and storing information. And glial cells support them.
White matter, on the other hand, is made up of axons, which work to form a network of fibers that connect these neurons. White matter is referred to as such because of the white, fatty covering of “myelin sheath” that acts as insulation for the nerves. This white matter actually increases the transmission speed of signals between the cells.
Researchers wondered – could the cells that produce this white myelin coating be impacted by stress, thus creating more myelin and leading to more white matter?
Your brain has a hippocampus that handles all your emotions and memories. Researchers studied this in rats and found that something different was happening with the neural stem cells found there. It was always understood that the neural stem cells will eventually become a type of glial cell (gray matter). Though the more researchers did experiments, the more they were able to discover that – under stress – the cells became a different type of glial cell – oligodendrocyte – one that is myelin-producing.
The findings have led researchers to determine that chronic stress leads to more myelin-producing cells and fewer neurons, throwing off the balance in the brain, disrupting the communication between brain cells, and even leading to mental health issues.
Oligodendrocyte Cells and Mental Health
This brings us to these oligodendrocyte cells. Since they are the ones that fill up the white matter in the brain and lead to mental health issues, they require a more in-depth understanding. What are they? How do they work?
Neurons are necessary for learning and memory skills. When the communication is disrupted, then there are red flags for cognitive functions. The more chronic stress is allowed to take over, the more issues will arise with the transmittal of information.
It is very clear that all of this is impacted due to the changes caused by chronic stress within the brain. Researchers are still in need of more studies – and those focused on humans rather than rats – to gain a full understanding.
Chronic Stress, Mental Health, and the Brain
Our mind is incredible and it can do some miraculous things. But when we overload it with stress at a too-constant level, things can happen – as evident with all these new findings. Sadly, the more stressed we get, the more we risk dealing with mental health and cognitive issues, and we often turn to negative vices for relief. As a result, we may be doing even more harm.
Our interconnected body needs to be able to function healthily as a whole. And that means that when it comes to finding stress relief and healing, we need to treat the entire body — not just the symptoms or some of its parts. After all, chronic stress has thrown everything off-balance in the brain.
Our bodies and minds work in balance. So whether you are dealing with chronic stress, addiction, a mental health disorder, or any combination of the two (or more), everything needs to be addressed to bring the body back in balance.
Stress is not going to go anywhere, but learning how to handle it and making changes where we can reduce its impact can also reduce the chance of mental health issues arising.
Stress is a normal part of life. However, a constant state of stress can have a negative impact on your mental health and even lead to substance abuse and addiction. If you or someone you love has turned to substance abuse as a way to ease stress, help is available. Learn more about the benefits of joining a holistic healing program today.