Stress often has a negative connotation. However, we know that a level of stress is essential for us to be able to function and learn in everyday situations. It is necessary for handling emergencies as well as attaining peak performance. Some amount of stress can increase performance during experiences that are limited in duration, can be mastered and end with a sense of exhilaration.
The ability to adapt to stress can empower an individual to overcome obstacles and if repeated, can build resilience.
In contrast, if the stress is prolonged, is poorly managed or of too significant a load then the individual is likely to move into a state of distress which has the opposite effect on performance and general health.
This unmanaged or unrelenting stress has been linked with a multitude of long lasting physical, medical and mental health concerns. It impairs our ability to use our memory efficiently, to sustain attention and focus. It impairs our ability to make good judgements, often leading to impulsivity and mistakes at work or in our relationships. It is the number one cause of sleep issues (and in my view the only cause) and because of this significant sleep disruption, drives inflammation in the body and the brain. It is linked with depression, anxiety, obesity, hypertension, headaches, cancer, dementia, PTSD, cardiovascular disease, memory impairments and the list goes on.
Burnout, is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
Typically characterised by:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) reduced professional efficacy.
Although a word commonly contained to workplace stress, an emerging term “ Adrenal Fatigue” is becoming more widely used to refer to that ‘burn-out’ that can result from unrelenting physical and emotional stress. Adrenal Fatigue has not been proven, however, what it implies is very real and has measurable metrics often showing up as fluctuating cortisol, or cortisol at the wrong time of day. Individuals suffering from this condition tend to report a long journey back to health recovery.
To understand why stress leads to such deleterious effects on our health is to better understand inflammation. Stress is a mandatory life-maintaining dynamic process. It loops with lightning speed assessing threats, driving corresponding physiological activation ( raised blood pressure, rapid heart rating, short sharp breathing..) to address the threats and enaging in such action (fight, flight or freeze) to reduce the stress (avoid being harmed). Our Central Nervous System (CNS) constantly is assessing the threat against our inate ability and resources to deal with that threat. However, we are finite in our resources and so the CNS must prioritise fast reduction of the stress response, explaining why we often react in ways that seem irrational, impulsive or an overreaction. As the day progresses, our ‘resources’ diminish in being able to underpin this stress response hence we fatigue and why we need to go to sleep to allow the body and CNS to restore. When there is ‘persistent stress’, that cannot be dealt with successfully by an immediate action, the CNS continues to drive arousal beyond the fatigue point and begins to erode sleep. Simply put, it keeps us more in the awake state shifting our entire sleep cycle upwards and only deep Delta sleep truly entering into the ‘sleep’ state. This is when REM dreaming turns into a futile mental awake activity of ruminating or worrying and light sleep is characterised by tossing and turning and where ‘Burn-out’ begins. As this cycle continues, oxidative stress and chronic inflammation ensues. This is simply where our bodies cannot keep up with detoxing and the ‘toxins’ build up. Eventually, due to cellular degredation we begin to see a slowing in the Eeg due to low ATP production in the cells due to chroninc inflammation. This is the stage where many describe mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion and multi-system health issues. The GUT barrier plays a role here and is likely degraded from the ongoing stress response and damage this causes to the microbiome and, we begin to see a degradation of the Blood Brain Barrier which allows toxins to begin entering the brain.
There is so much more to write about and describe, however, the above is not meant to be exhaustive but to rather impress on the reader the importance of stress management and prevention. Although adrenal fatigue may not be medically recognised, stress unrelenting and the eventual burn-out that occurs at a cellular level is a very real thing that we can see in neuroimaging studies and in Eeg activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recognised toxic stress resulting in oxidative stress and chronic inflammation as a leading cause of adult health problems (Shankoff & Garner, 2012). Treating someone at this end stage is extremely challenging and is best avoided by making significant changes to how one recognises and manages stress daily; prioritising sleep always; feeding the body with good nutrition to help it fight oxidative stress,; moderately exercising daily and making brain health a priority.
Neuroperformance will work with you to develop a comprehensive program that will address how your brain handles stress, reducing existing stress and the associated limitations, but can also work with those seeking prevention. As part of prevention, early stages of burnout can be localized and treated, and resistance to further stress and relaxation can be improved.