Hacking Your Brain: Understanding Stress

Laura Maisvoreva


The field of neuroscience is ever-growing, with people gaining more interest in how the brain works and why we do the things we do; how the brain influences our conscious and subconscious decisions.  Not much is known about the complexity and variation between  behaviors, thought processes, and individual characteristics. Neuroscience aims to provide the pathway by which these concepts are better understood, in an effort to gain insight in human behavior and cognitive psychology. A good understanding and appreciation of how the brain works to regulate thoughts, emotions and moods can help cultivate positive mental health, amongst additional aspects.


The Brain: Cognition and Coordination

The brain is an essential organ, perfectly designed to coordinate everything we do: from waking up, to controlling how and when you should blink, as well as proper motor function of all our muscles. It is no secret that the brain is the control and command center of our bodies, and any malfunctions, no matter how minute, can have devastating effects on the health and wellbeing of individuals.

Cognition (thinking) can be defined as the “mental processes involved in gaining knowledge and comprehension. These cognitive processes include thinking, knowing, remembering, judging, and problem-solving” {1]. Cognitive processes are orchestrated by various parts of the brain, which are all responsible for certain things; for example, the frontal lobe, part of the cerebrum and the outer part of the brain, are responsible for reasoning and decision-making, both aspects which constitute and shape most of an individual’s personality [2]. The diagram below illustrates the compartmentalization of brain lobes. 

Composed of an intertwining network of several billion neurons, the brain continuously receives and sends out signals to maintain body functions. The brain responds differently to different situations, which is why the response to a particular event will never be the same, even when repeated or rewound. The brain’s ability to respond in such an intricate and detailed manner helps us understand why we react differently to stressful or calm situations.  Neural activity varies with varying stimuli, as demonstrated in an investigation that concluded that certain levels of anticipation of events alter how an individual responds to it [4]. If stress-inducing events can be better understood by using the ‘theory of anticipation’, we could be in a better position to destress and not be distressed.


The Limbic System

The emotional state of a being is primarily controlled by the limbic part of the brain, where the brain is often affected by stress or other emotional stimuli. 

The limbic brain processes emotions and feelings. This section of the brain can be subdivided into several parts with different functions. The cingulate gyrus, for example, is involved in emotional processing, whilst the amygdala is responsible for negative emotion processing, such as anxiety or fear. 

The hypothalamus, another sub-structure of the limbic brain, also works in a coordinated manner with the amygdala to process negative emotions such as rage [6]. Other structures in the brain affect emotional health in a hormonal or endocrine way, influencing variables such as heart rate or the circadian rhythm responsible for the sleep-wake cycle. Removal or destruction of the amygdala has been shown to result in placidity - feelings of calmness even when emotional situations arise, demonstrating the correlation between brain activity and emotional response [6]. If these parts of the brain are targeted less dramatically, it could help alleviate anxiety disorders and other mental disorders which result from emotional stress.


Not All Stress Is Bad: Differentiating Eustress and Distress

Stress is the body’s natural response to external or internal stimuli. Simply put, it is the feeling generated when situations, either good or bad, happen to an individual, and can determine their reactions appropriately. However, not all stress is bad as small amounts of stress are necessary to help us make quick decisions or motivate us to do something. The stress experienced when making quick decisions  bypasses longer thought processes that would seek to evaluate a situation in its entirety before reacting. Eustress, otherwise known as ‘positive stress,’ is a healthy type of stress that produces feelings of excitement and fulfillment. It is the type of stress that can help complete an assignment, allowing us to experience satisfaction as a reward for a job well done. Prolonged, excessive, or uncontrolled stress can quickly lead to distress, a state, or a condition of lowness and helplessness. Distress has many well-known adverse side effects and is a significant contributor to mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. 


Effects Of Distress

Research has shown that distress can lead to reduced brain mass and brain atrophy [7]. These structural changes lead to impaired cognition, learning, memory, amongst other problems. Timing and duration of distress are influential dictators of the intensity of these problems [8]. Neuroimaging shows deactivation of the hippocampus (responsible for memory) in response to psychological stress [9]. Another region of the brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, is also seen to have decreased activity [9]. The orbitofrontal cortex is also part of the limbic system, with functions in memory and emotions.  Disruption to this brain structure affects other parts of the limbic system, often with results manifesting as behavioral or mood disorders. Whether a person knows they are stressed or not, these patterns, characteristic of chronic stress, are vital indicators that stress may be the problem.

There is a clear relationship between stress and the immune system. Distress leads to suppressed immune function, leaving an individual immunocompromised. Immune system cells such as lymphocytes are affected, and this suppression has been found to cause “genetic instability, and tumor expansion” [11]. Looking at the effects stress has on the body, it is imperative to find ways to manage and cope with stress in a way that helps maintain a good sense of wellbeing. 


Hacking the Brain, Controlling the Mind

The ability, therefore, to understand stress and its effects is fundamental in tackling the issue. Not all hope is lost; although stress can impair cognitive function, studies show that the damage is reversible. Relaxation and breathing techniques are effective in reducing and eliminating toxic stress. A study showed improved cortisol levels in children whose stress management focused on psychosocial intervention [12]. While stress can be explained from a scientific point of view, treatment tends to focus less on medication (excluding cases involving other issues, such as depression, are linked) and has a more holistic approach that seeks to improve wellbeing at a social level. Cognitive-behavioral therapies (CBTs) aim to alter the way people think, to control their minds and not be subconsciously overwhelmed by life stressors. Practicing self-awareness can help identify potential sources of stress, and self-evaluation of seemingly new behaviors can pinpoint underlying problems to be addressed.

These efforts, ultimately, strive to foster and maintain positive mental health. Stress is an unavoidable and inescapable component of life that affects everyone, and an appreciation of the detrimental effects it has if left unchecked, should determine us to make every effort to control and manage it. 




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  12. Slopen, Natalie. (02/2014). Interventions to improve cortisol regulation in children: a systematic review. Paediatrics. 312-326. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-1632. Retrieved: 07/08/2020.

Laura Maisvoreva

Laura Maisvoreva

Medical student aspiring to be a positive influencer of change in the Zimbabwean Healthcare system.