Dual Nature of Stress Response

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Hans Selye once said, “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” Known as the father of stress research, he described the stress response as having a dual nature. Short-term stressors produce changes that aid in response, while long-term stressors produce maladaptive changes. How exactly these adaptations occur may be up for some debate, and Selye’s theory may only be partially correct, however, one thing remains certain. Encountering stress in daily life is inevitable for every individual, and as a result, learning to manage stressors is crucial not only for health but for quality of life. Many different techniques have been introduced in an attempt to counteract this stress response. These techniques include meditation, exercise, and Cognitive Training.

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Meditation is often considered to be a form of mind-body complementary medicine. It combines the elements of focused attention, breathing, and occasionally mantra repetition, to produce a state of relaxation. In the last decade, meditation has proven an effective treatment for a broad range of diseases. Research done by Carnegie Mellon University has demonstrated that these effects are consistent in adults experiencing stress, by reducing the inflammatory health biomarker interleukin-6. These health-related improvements occur because the process of meditation fundamentally alters the functional connectivity patterns in the brain. These changes allow for improved executive control and stress resilience through biological markers. More specifically, it alters the brain regions crucial in top-down executive control. This training functionally couples the default mode network with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex to improve inflammatory disease risk factors. The result is an improvement in stress management not only on a psychological level but a physiological level as well. There are many different types of meditation, all providing individual benefits. Guided meditation allows for the formation of relaxing mental images, mantra meditation utilizes words or phrases to prevent distracting thoughts, and mindfulness meditation involves in tune full body awareness. The latter is the approach most commonly utilized in stress management training. Full body awareness provides a connection between the external stressor and its physiological response in the body. By increasing awareness of one’s individual response, one can learn how to better control it. Whether this is slowing the heart rate, removing distracting thoughts, or something else. The result is enhanced physical and emotional well-being.

It’s often said that a good workout is the best way to clear your mind. Exercise can be one aspect of an effective stress management program in individuals experiencing acute, acute episodic, or chronic stress. In fact, stress and physical activity are shown to have antagonistic effects. Acute stress alters memory in an attempt to narrow attention and ignore memory input that would interfere with the fight or flight response. As a result, there is great difficulty in acquiring and consolidating memories during periods of stress. All kinds of physical activity can lead to improvements in cognition, as well as body performance in a variety of ways. Although all exercise forms may be beneficial, most research surrounds aerobic exercise. Dynamic physical activity is effective in increasing cerebral blood flow. This marked increase is a critical aspect of ensuring the brain can effectively adapt on a molecular level. Exercise is also known to have enhancing effects on neurogenesis in the hippocampus. This structure is part of the limbic brain and has a crucial role in learning and declarative long-term memory. As a result, physical activity can improve learning and neuroplasticity. Stressful experiences have a direct impact on brain-derived neurotrophic factor production and release, decreasing its levels.

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