Applying to a new job, starting a business or relocating to a new country are all examples of stressful situations.
Stress has become ingrained in our daily lives and it has come to a point where it would be unreasonable for us to expect not to have to deal with it.
Let us take a minute to understand what stress actually is.
Stress is more than a feeling. It is a biological response that our body produces because of stress factors or stressors. Anyone preparing for a test, or an important meeting with higher management, having an argument with someone or trying to win a sports match knows what stress is.
When we are stressed, our body releases the stress hormone (cortisol) which gives us the energy to deal with the situation. When the event is over the level of cortisol in our body falls back to normal.
Take an example of a sports match. We naturally play to win and while the match is on, we automatically get stressed. Our cortisol levels go up, keeping us alert and active.
In this case, stress is beneficial. It was a reaction to a temporary event that gave us the energy to control and modify our response based on the situation we found ourselves in.
But when the feeling of being stressed recurs and becomes constant, it is harmful and can have a negative impact on our health.
Chronic stress leads to mood swings, a feeling of irritability and causes us to lose focus. If not treated and managed early on, it can lead to more severe physical complications like gastrointestinal issues, hypertension and heart disease.
The Biology behind Stress
When we encounter a stressful situation, the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain begins the stress response by sending a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland in turn sends a message to the adrenal glands located on the top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands release the stress hormone, cortisol.
With the help of cortisol, the liver produces glucose and releases it into the bloodstream. The increase in blood sugar level gives us the energy for the fight or flight response. Once the situation in under control, blood sugar levels return to normal.
The series of interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands is called the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis or the HPA axis.
Although normal levels of cortisol are healthy, increasing levels can wreak havoc with our brain.
Here are a few ways in which stress can affect our brain.
Chronic stress weakens the hippocampus
Rising cortisol levels lead to an increase in the activity level and number of neurons in the amygdala; the part of the brain that controls our emotions. The amygdala is a collection of cells at the base of the brain. At the same time, the electrical signals in the hippocampus decrease. The hippocampus is embedded deep in the temporal lobe and controls our memory, learning and stress controlling ability. It is involved in the regulation of our stress response and exerts negative feedback on the HPA axis, thereby controlling the release of cortisol. But as the electrical signals in the hippocampus decrease, it weakens and reduces our ability to control stress.
High levels of cortisol can cause our brain to shrink in size
High levels of cortisol cause a breakdown of the synaptic connections between neurons and also shrinks the size of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive behavior, personality, decision-making and social interaction.
In a study conducted on 103 healthy participants at Yale University, researchers found that those who had experienced traumatic stress and adverse life events, even very recent ones, showed lower gray matter in the prefrontal cortex.
Cortisol makes the brain more receptive to stress
While stress shrinks the size of the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala which can make the brain more receptive to stress.
Stress kills brain cells and decreases memory and learning ability
High cortisol levels kill newly created neurons in the hippocampus which ultimately decreases our memory and learning ability and can lead to more severe mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.
In a lab experiment conducted on rats, researchers found that a single stressful event could kill new neurons created in the hippocampus.
The researchers placed young rats in a cage with two older rats for around twenty minutes. The young rats were then subjected to aggressive behavior by the older rats. Examination of the young rats found that they had cortisol levels up to six times higher than those of rats who had not experienced a stressful situation. Further examination showed that while the rats subjected to stress had generated the same number of new neurons as those generated by the rats not under stress, there was a distinct reduction in neurons a week later.
High stress causes loss of memory and spatial orientation
The hippocampus has always been associated with storing long term memory and is thought to be responsible for our spatial processing and navigational ability.
The hippocampus is composed of several sub-regions, one of which is the dentate gyrus. The dentate gyrus is composed of densely packed neurons and houses neural stem cells that mature into neurons throughout our adult lives.
Stress causes the hippocampus to lose its ability to produce new neurons in the dentate gyrus thereby weakening our memory and spatial orientation.
Spatial orientation is our innate sense of direction that helps us navigate our environment and get from one point to another. It helps us read maps, find our way to new places by following directions and generally helps us orient ourselves in unfamiliar environments. Without spatial orientation we would be lost and would not know how to get to where we want to go.
Chronic stress diminishes the ability of the hippocampus to generate new neurons, which negatively affects our spatial orientation.
Chronic Stress causes mental illness
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have shown that chronic stress causes long term changes in the brain which is why people with chronic stress are prone to mental illnesses like anxiety and mood disorders later in life.
People with stress-related illnesses like PTSD have more white matter than gray matter in their brain. Gray matter mostly consists of neurons and support cells called glia while white matter is composed of axons. Axons create a network of fibers that interconnect neurons. Myelin, a white fatty sheet surrounds the axons and speeds the flow of electrical signals from cell to cell.
A series of studies published in the journal ‘Molecular Psychiatry’ found that chronic stress generates more myelin producing cells and fewer neurons. This results in an excess of myelin or white matter in several areas of the brain which upsets timing and communication within the brain.
Chronic Stress causes Alzheimer’s disease
There are two key toxic proteins responsible for causing Alzheimer’s disease.
The first is beta-amyloid which forms plaques in the brain. Animal models subjected to stress have shown an increase in levels of beta-amyloid.
Tau is the second toxic protein responsible for Alzheimer’s. It forms tangles and is the primary trigger for the death of neurons in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have shown evidence of hyper-phosphorylation of tau in animal models subjected to stress.
Stress affects brain connectivity
Researchers have also found differences in brain connectivity in people suffering from PTSD. There was stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and amygdala while the connectivity between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex was weakened. This meant that fear responses in people with PTSD would be quicker while their ability to control fear or to inhibit their response to fear would be lessened.
People suffering from PTSD always have their fear response mechanism activated and are always in fight or flight mode which makes it logical that the connectivity between their amygdala and hippocampus becomes stronger over time.
How to reclaim brain health
Although the effect that stress can have on the brain, looks scary, we needn’t be afraid. Many of the changes that occur in our brain pathways as a result of high cortisol levels, can be reversed.
Positive changes in lifestyle have a direct impact in reducing stress levels and improving brain health
Exercise regularly for 30 mins a day, four to five days a week
If someone suffers from a childhood trauma it will, unless they seek treatment, affect them to some degree for the rest of their life. It is behind many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety and various addictions.
One of the world’s leading addiction experts is physician and author Dr Gabor Maté. His mantra is: “The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”
Maté, now aged 77, says everybody he has ever treated with an addiction in his long career had suffered terrible trauma, usually during their childhood. Their addiction was an attempt to cope with the overwhelming pain of what had happened by masking or numbing that pain.
Maté speaks about how addictive urges start in areas of our brain that control the ability to feel and receive love. Human babies are born far earlier in developmental terms than most other animals.
Consequently our brains are still growing tremendously when we are born. In fact a human brain doubles in size in the first year.
How our environment shapes us
So it makes sense that the brain’s development will be influenced by its environment. There will be detrimental consequences, for instance, if a baby witnesses lots of trauma in their household.
This could be that they live in a house that resembles a war zone much more than the sanctuary it needs to be. Our brain circuits develop healthily if they are under the influence of a nurturing environment throughout early life.
But if the environment is belligerent and traumatic – in the way that many dysfunctional family homes are – the brain doesn’t develop as it should. This is believed by many mental health experts to contribute to various mental health conditions in later life.
As we grow up too, especially in the first eight to ten years of our life, we are being strongly shaped, taught how to navigate the world around us. You could say our brains are being programmed – but sometimes they are wired completely incorrectly.
The family blueprint
This is not necessarily because the parents or caregivers are doing this consciously to be malicious. It is because all of us to an extent imitate our parents as we grow up.
People are handed what can be called a “family blueprint”. It shows various ways to respond to certain situations – and these have often been handed down to the newest generation in that family for generations.
So if on hearing something someone doesn’t like, getting angry or going into a sulk are ways that have been taught in a particular family for years – it’s more than likely this is how a child will grow up responding too. They will then take that into adulthood, frequently not realizing there are alternative ways to respond – despite much distress and the problems that following the family blueprint might be causing them.
Also there’s the fact that parents might adopt “coping mechanisms” for their own traumas, that are frequently from their own childhood. These are then, usually unknowingly, forced on to their children.
These ways of coping are not healthy, sometimes they are utterly dysfunctional and even abusive. In some form they have often been going on for generations.
Compressed torment of generations
It’s what Dr Maté describes as “the compressed torment of generations”. That’s what he says we are often witnessing and dealing with when somebody is an addict.
Addiction and other mental health problems can occur for other reasons, including a trauma happening in adult life. Trauma derives from a Greek word meaning “wound”, so it’s anything that leaves an internal wound.
Until this is looked at in treatment, that internal wound will usually get more painful as it festers. This is why mental health problems get progressively worse unless they are treated.
Toxic shame is when someone is carrying shame that does not belong to them. Most often it has been pushed on them by parents or another caregiver. It is, for instance, behind the fact that many abusers were previously abused themselves.
Some people will say or observe that one sibling seems worse affected by growing up, say, with an alcoholic mother, than the other sibling. This is because we are all different and some people are simply more sensitive than others.
Then there are others who think that because someone might not have been living with their parents for years or decades that they should just be able to get over whatever happened and get on with life. But it is absolutely not that simple.
An internal wound is just like a terrible open wound on our skin. If it is not looked at and treated, it will most nearly always get worse, the infection spreading and so making it even more painful.
So trauma and toxic shame is like this. They are like having a wound that’s inside us or some poison. The passage of time alone doesn’t heal.
Thankfully there are proven antidotes. Treatment such as talking therapy has successfully helped a great many people.
A people-pleaser is exactly as it sounds – a person who is always trying to make other people pleased with them. This is even if it means they have no time left for themselves.
People-pleasing is not an official mental health diagnosis. But it is a mental health condition that can be seen in many people today and it often leads to emotional and mental health problems.
Many people-pleasers are compassionate people who have a great deal of empathy. Yet for people-pleasers the issue is deeper than merely wanting to be kind and considerate.
A great deal of the driving force behind someone who is a people-pleaser is low self-esteem. Esteem is a word that derives from Latin aestimare, meaning “to estimate” – so self-esteem simply means how you value yourself.
So their continual enthusiasm and need to please other people comes from this low self-worth. They think that by saying yes to everything and everyone it will mean they are worth something and loved.
Parent-pleasing to people-pleasing
It is frequently that their people-pleasing started in childhood when the child learned to become a parent-pleaser. To try and get their needs met and feel valued they ran around, often with a constant smile on their face, trying to please one or both parents.
People-pleasing can easily be confused with simply being kind and selfless. If someone else (or the please-pleaser themselves) questions why they can never seem to say the word “no” they will reason something like: “I’m just trying to be kind” or “I can’t let them down.”
A people-pleaser has a craving to feel needed and invaluable because they do not really value themselves. So they are looking continually for external validation.
It works to a small degree. But it is tremendously away from what they really need, which is to know self-love and self-worth.
So this often means they let other people take advantage of them. For this reason it’s not uncommon for a people-pleaser to end up in an abusive relationship – with the abusive partner taking from them all the time and the people-pleasing partner constantly giving all of themselves all of the time.
Codependency and people-pleasing
In a healthy relationship there’s an equal amount of give and take between the partners. It’s also why most codependents are people-pleasers, although not every people-pleaser is codependent.
Being a people-pleaser is an extremely stressful and frequently painful way to live. Because no matter how much they give to others they don’t ever get what they are truly seeking. The real solution comes from within.
As a result, people-pleasers frequently suffer from depression, stress and anxiety. They will bottle up emotions, such as what they really want to say to someone who’s always taking from them.
Then there might also be addiction issues as they try to push down negative feelings of frustration and anger, some of which is at themselves for not ever seeming to be able to say no. More often than not, they have no “me” time or any spare time at all because they are always doing things for other people.
10 Major signs of people-pleasing
Saying yes when meaning no In their head is the word “no” because they know they don’t have enough time (and it’s the hundredth time this person has asked them to give their time in the past month) and yet what comes out is: “Yes.” Then there is the remorse and beating up of oneself that follows. This can spiral into depression.
Cannot cope with anger It’s because a people-pleaser is desperate to be liked. It’s always good to be liked, but sometimes we need to make the choice between being liked or being respected. But a people-pleaser will avoid anger aimed towards them at all costs. They also find it virtually impossible to get angry at someone else in situations where this might be needed – for instance, when making it clear a healthy boundary has been breached.
Feeling in charge of someone else’s emotional state Someone who’s a people-pleaser finds it hard to accept that they cannot help someone to move into a better mood. So they will do all they can and often consequently incur the wrath of the person they are trying to help, which then creates a vicious cycle.
Avoiding conflict A common phrase of a people-pleaser is: “I just want a peaceful life” or “I don’t want to cause any trouble.” This is mostly, but not always, to do with a partner whose behavior is frequently unacceptable. But a people-pleaser is terrified of conflict – and that is often the result of growing up in a household that resembled a war zone rather than the safe sanctuary a home should be.
Can never say they feel negative emotions Someone who’s a people-pleaser will not be able to let anyone know when their feelings are negative, such as when they feel sadness, embarrassment or disappointment. It’s to do with their low self-worth and the mistaken belief that no one should bother with them because they’re not really worth it. This means that their relationships are shallow. It also means that a people-pleaser will deny their true feelings.
Having no time People who are people-pleasers never have any time for their own hobbies or work or even simply to relax – because they are always doing something for someone else. This means that they are very often in a stressed state because they are having to squeeze in some things for themselves they must do. It can make for anxiety as well as lack of sleep, with all the emotional and physical problems that can bring.
Imitating those around When someone has low self-esteem it means they also have a low sense of self. Because a people-pleaser is so desperate to please they will copy other people’s behavior. This can often be detrimental, such as drinking too much when they don’t really want to drink at all. Not being true to themselves in this way, although difficult as they are unlikely to know their true self anyway, leaves them with a gut feeling that is painfully uncomfortable. This can lead to self-loathing.
Seeking praise at all costs It’s human nature to enjoy being commended or congratulated for something we’ve done. But a people-pleaser has to have this sort of praise and will do almost anything to get it. Unfortunately, this often means not being who they truly are and that leaves them feeling bewildered, exasperated and quite frequently in deep despair too. Another problem is that people-pleasers are often attracted to people who never give out any praise. So they end up in a relentless chase for praise – and that is exhausting, infuriating and frustrating. If they do get praise it gives them such a temporary high that they will chase that again too – and it can become like an addiction.
Constantly saying sorry A people-pleaser cannot seem to stop themselves from apologizing all the time. They are continually blaming themselves – and even if someone asks them in a kind way to stop saying sorry so often they find themselves replying: “Sorry.”
Agreeing with someone even when disagreeing People-pleasers will nod their heads and agree even when they don’t agree, even when they really think the direct opposite – and sometimes when they might even know for a fact that what someone is saying is wrong.
Dr Dyer told the story of Ivan Ilyich, who was novelist Leo Tolstoy’s character in his story called The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Ilyich was a leading high-court judge in 19th-century Russia who was seen as a hugely successful person in his society’s eyes.
But when he was struck down with a terminal illness, he increasingly developed deep bitterness towards everybody he met. One major reason for this was he could clearly now see the shallowness of those who he thought cared about him.
That included his wife who he realized only really loved his money and status; his colleagues who were more excited than sad because they knew one of them would get promoted to fill his position; and even his doctors who only viewed him as a challenge, a sick high-profile person who they could use to show how good they were at keeping him alive for longer than anyone expected.
By the time he became surrounded by these people, close to taking his last breath on his deathbed, Ilyich knew the answer to his question: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” He made that stark and terrible realization – yet with no opportunity whatsoever to do anything about it.
He had never been true to his real self, and so he had never known who he really was – and neither had the world. He had climbed the ladder of success, but finally realized it was always up against the wrong building.
He had died with his music still inside him.
Being true to ourselves
Most of us can relate to why a life can be lived like this. From our first memories we are asked what we are going to be when we grow up.
As children if we answer with something that really excites and inspires us we are often looked at quizzically while a wry smile forms on the onlooker. That could be our parents, or other caregivers including teachers or it could be a career advisor when we reach our teens.
We are steered towards other occupations and ways of living. Safer options than, say, being a musician or traveling the world in an RV.
But so often this means not being true to ourselves. Because the pressure of both family and cultural expectations is relentless and intense.
Frequently it’s merely because it’s what has been in the “family blueprint” for generations, such as: “In our family we are always physicians or lawyers.” The pressure and moral obligation is strongly put on every young person in such a family.
They actually feel pangs of painful guilt should they even think about breaking the family’s moral career code. There seems no escape.
Unlived lives of parents
Sometimes it can be too that it’s one or both of the parents attempting to live their unfulfilled lives through their children or seeking external validation as they try to fill up their own emptiness through one of their children.
Not being able to fulfill our potential and be who we truly are is one factor behind many mental health issues, ranging from anxiety and depression to various addictions. Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wrote about this in his bestselling self-help book Man’s Search For Meaning when he said that people need to find their true meaning in order to find happiness.
Until you leave your family and your culture behind you’ll never find out who you are. So you’ll never find your true self.
This is because there is a pressure and an inflexible expectation of who and how you should be, of what you should do and achieve. It’s programming, it’s belief – “Because my father and grandfather did” is often the reasoning.
Then there are celebrity stories in the media and people see a certain celebrity’s impressive mansion and their amazing car and they think that’s what society is telling me I need in order to be happy and to be someone.
This is much easier to ignore if we have a strong sense of self. But it’s this sense of self that is so often forced out of someone when they have little choice as a child.
This is where gut instinct comes in. Many people are living a life that sits uncomfortably, when their insides don’t match their outside.
Some experts such as psychiatrist M Scott Peck, author of bestselling recovery book The Road Less Traveled, felt that the pain of mental health problems could be seen as our true spirit trying to get our attention to come back to it when we have gone too far away.
Jung wrote on this in his Red Book: “My soul, where are you? Do you hear me? I speak, I call you – are you there? I have returned, I am here again. I have shaken the dust of all the lands from my feet, and I have come to you, I am with you. After long years of long wandering, I have come to you again. … Give me your hand, my almost forgotten soul. How warm the joy at seeing you again, you long disavowed soul.”
It is something that deep down, if we are all honest with ourselves, we know. It’s one reason we admire those people who have stayed true to their real self, such as many musicians, actors and authors, but equally that person we can sense is so happy because it’s clear they’re doing what they really love. They have gone with their heart, followed their bliss.
However, it does take great courage and a real sense of duty to break free from cultural and family expectations. But it is possible, especially under the guidance of someone with expertise in these matters.
It doesn’t mean that you love or care any less for your family or your nation. But it does usually mean you will find that you love your life more and care for yourself better.
That means everyone around you will truly benefit too. They might even love the music that would otherwise have remained trapped inside you when they hear it.