Our brains are designed to help us “power through.” Under stress, the brain signals to release hormones including adrenaline and cortisol. They give us energy, strengthen the immune system, improve reflexes and even help our memory.
But if we are always under stress, the release of cortisol begins to work against us.
“Chronic stress affects your head, your heart, your liver, your immune system,” says Bruce McEwen, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York.
McEwen has discovered that chronic stress causes neurons in the brain to shrink and change shape. In animals, that causes a loss of memory, increased anxiety and aggressiveness that can lead to signs of depression.
Other research, undertaken by psychologist Elissa Epel, has shown how chronic stress can speed up aging and make us more prone to disease.
“Stress has been shown to affect virtually every physiological system we have,” Epel says. “Stress even affects cells at the molecular level.”
Eppel’s research has shown that telomeres, the protective coating at the end of chromosomes, get frayed and worn by stress, mimicking the effects of aging.
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What Do Humans Want?
Satisfaction comes less from the attainment of a goal
and more in what you must do to get there. ~ Gregory Berns, MD, PhD
Dr. Berns, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, says human contentment is indeed possible in Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. And he should know. He’s spent his academic career investigating happiness – or in neuroscientific terms, the circumstances under which the brain releases dopamine (for happiness) or cortisol (for stress).