Getting stressed once in a while is a normal part of everyday life. Your body was built to handle it. But sometimes your stress level can get so out of hand that it takes a big toll on your health, both physical and mental. We usually focus on the physical effects of stress, but in this article, we’ll talk about stress and mental health, which is just as important.
There are different kinds of stress. There’s eustress, which is a healthy kind of stress that you can use to your advantage. Then there’s acute stress, which is short-lived and can be mild or severe. And then there’s chronic stress, which is prolonged and can also be mild or severe.
Generally, your body can handle acute stress quite efficiently. Your “fight or flight” response kicks into gear, speeding up your breathing and heart rate to allow more oxygenated blood to circulate. Your mind becomes more focused and your body gets a burst of energy. But chronic stress, even if mild, can create a lot of problems, including neuropsychiatric ones.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between acute and chronic stress. And it’s also not always easy to tell whether your stress has turned into something more problematic.
One way is to check how you’re doing after the stressful situation has been resolved for some time. If you’re still worried and unable to stop thinking about it, then that could be a sign of anxiety. If you’re still sad or down about it, then that could be a sign of depression. Anxiety and depression can both be symptoms of chronic, unresolved stress.
Chronic stress keeps your body in a constant state of reaction, such as the “fight or flight” response. This makes your adrenal glands work extra hard. They have to secrete stress hormones, like cortisol, to deal with this continuous stress. At some point, they become exhausted and their cortisol output drops.
These are the stages of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), and they can easily lead to physical and mental health issues. And, unfortunately, if AFS progresses beyond a certain point, even if you've resolved the original stress, the symptoms are likely to persist.
Symptoms of AFS include fatigue, weight gain, fertility issues, lowered immunity, heart palpitations, hypoglycemia, food and drug sensitivities, blood pressure instability, dry skin, and hair loss. But they also extend to your brain and nervous system, with symptoms like brain fog, anxiety, mild depression, sleep problems, and an inability to handle stress.
The reason that the symptoms can be so varied is because your adrenals are one component of your body’s global stress response: the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response.
Your NEM is a network of organs and systems that work together to fight stress. They are arranged into six circuits: the Hormone, the Bioenergetics, the Cardionomic, the Neuroaffect, the Inflammation, and the Detoxification circuits. Your adrenals are part of the Hormone and Cardionomic circuits. All stressors activate your NEM, but depending on which circuit is more affected, you’ll get a different symptom picture.
When our clients are dealing with mental health issues, we pay special attention to the Neuroaffect Circuit to see what’s going on there. This circuit is composed of the brain, the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and the microbiome. Each of these components is affected by stress in a slightly different way.
The ANS is the part of your nervous system that is automatic and works without your conscious control. It has different components as well, such as branches of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), and the adrenomedullary hormonal system (AHS).
If your stress is mild, the SNS can handle it alone. Your “fight or flight” response is triggered by the SNS using norepinephrine, which is the neurotransmitter used for less severe stress. But if it starts to get more severe, your AHS kicks in to help and triggers the release of adrenaline, a much more powerful neurotransmitter. Then, once the stress is dealt with, the PNS brings your body back to a state of rest and repair.
This is what happens with acute stress. But with chronic stress, your AHS has to keep triggering the release of adrenaline, which puts pressure on your adrenals to produce more cortisol to counter its effects. But when your adrenals weaken, then adrenaline levels shoot through the roof with no opposing hormones to bring them back down.
This is where stress and mental health can really take a hit – anxiety turns into panic attacks and a sense of doom, sleep problems turn into full-blown biological clock dysregulation, and your body goes into a “wired and tired” state where you can’t rest and you can’t function either.
If your brain is exposed to stress hormones for extended periods of time, it can change not only in function, but also in structure.
Functionally, elevated stress hormone levels can start to affect the areas of the brain that help with emotional regulation as well as cognitive abilities. You might find yourself having strange or disproportionate emotional reactions. You might also have distorted or inaccurate perceptions of the world, which can result in difficulties in your work, relationships, and day to day activities.
Structural risks include getting a stroke from the changes in blood pressure that come with AFS. Also, the loss of grey matter can reduce the size of the medial prefrontal cortex. An increase in white matter can happen as well, which makes it more difficult for neurons to make connections with each other. Myelin in the hippocampus may also increase, which can lead to learning difficulties.
You may have been surprised to see the microbiome as the third component of the Neuroaffect Circuit, which is supposed to be all about the nervous system. But the gut-brain connection is becoming more well-researched these days, and you may have heard about how important gut health is to stress and mental health.
The microbiome is the collection of microorganisms that live in your body. More specifically, we're referring mostly to those in your digestive tract. Many neurotransmitters are made in the gut, and if your microbiome is not in good shape, you can start to see an imbalance of those. Also, chronic inflammation almost always begins in the gut, and then travels to different areas of the body, such as the brain, causing problems there.
Stress can cause your microbiome to go out of balance – a state called dysbiosis. This can then lead to leaky gut, where your gut lining becomes more permeable and allows substances into your bloodstream that shouldn’t be there. That’s actually one of the main causes of chronic inflammation. Another problem is that overgrowth of bacteria can happen in your small intestine, a condition called SIBO, which can cause problems with your digestion. And, finally, slowed gut motility is another possible issue, which can also disrupt digestion and even cause malabsorption of nutrients.
If you’re suffering from stress and mental health problems, there are several things you can do about it.
The first and most important step is to seek professional support. This includes both mental health specialists and chronic stress experts. The latter should be well-versed in adrenal fatigue and NEM dysregulation, as resolving those can go a long way in improving your mental health.
Together with your healthcare professionals, you will devise a recovery plan that takes into account the following:
Each individual is different, so it’s vital to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. But, having said that, there are a few tips to consider when creating your recovery plan.
The following are our top 10 tips to help you rebalance your Neuroaffect Circuit, recover from adrenal fatigue, and get your stress and mental health back on track. Remember, these should all be adapted to your specific situation and should only be done with the supervision of a qualified health professional.
Plan for a microbiome-supporting diet. This means eating a probiotic and prebiotic rich diet that includes things like fiber, fermented foods, and gut-sealing bone broth. Some examples of fermented foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, and kefir. You can also add a probiotic supplement to help with this.
Eat an adrenal fatigue diet. This diet is composed of specific ratios of macronutrients and food groups that are optimal for adrenal fatigue recovery. It’s also nutrient-dense to help restore any depleted nutrient and energy stores.
Eat smaller meals every 3-4 hours. This helps keep your blood sugar levels stable throughout the day. Hypoglycemia is a symptom of AFS, and it’s also an anxiety trigger.
Some supplements will help to fill in any nutritional gaps left over by your diet, such as vitamins and minerals. Others can help your body adapt to stress, such as ashwagandha and rhodiola. And some can help your body fight oxidative stress, such as ubiquinol and glutathione. Talk these over with your doctor before starting though, as some can backfire and lead to unexpected reactions, especially if you have AFS.
For example, chamomile tea can be good for sleep. Lavender essential oil in your bath can help you relax. And herbal remedies, such as St. John’s Wort can help with depression symptoms.
Adrenal breathing exercises and adrenal yoga exercises are good options for those with AFS. If you have more advanced adrenal fatigue, you may want to wait until you’re a little stronger before doing any kind of physical activity, as vigorous exercise can add stress to the body and worsen severe AFS. If your AFS is mild though, gentle exercise like walking or yoga is often safe.
You may have heard about forest bathing. But even a simple walk in the park is good. Even better if you can do it barefoot to get some grounding/earthing benefits.
Sleep is fundamental. But it’s even more crucial to get good sleep during recovery. Good sleep hygiene practices can really help. These include putting away screens two hours before bed, keeping your room cool and dark, and eating a light snack before sleep to avoid middle-of-the-night hypoglycemia. Melatonin supplements can also help if you need something extra.
Mindfulness meditation can be quite useful, as can journaling, support groups, and gratitude practice. You should also do your best to remove the source of the stress, or at least reduce it. This often means making a plan and asking for help. For example, if it’s an overwhelm of chores at home, delegate some of tasks or make peace with having a less organized house. If it’s financial trouble, make a debt or savings plan with a trusted friend or family member’s help.
Don't be discouraged if you don't feel better right away. It may have taken years for all the stress to accumulate that is causing your mental health issues now. Some people also live with adrenal fatigue for years before their symptoms become obvious. So give yourself the time and grace to go slowly. There will be ups and downs, and it may not be easy. But, hopefully, with the help of an experienced healthcare professional, you will get there.
Stress and mental health are intricately linked. Although occasional stress here and there is normal, if you feel that it has become a feature in your life, this is cause for concern. It could lead to anxiety, depression, AFS, Neuroaffect dysregulation, and other health problems. But even if you’re already battling these issues, there are ways out.
If you have questions about whether your stress is causing such problems, or you’re worried about Neuroaffect circuit dysfunction, AFS, or mental health issues, you can call us for a free initial consultation to understand our approach to recovery.
Stress and mental health are linked, and in some cases, they can spiral out of control. Your autonomic nervous system, brain, and gut are all involved. And knowing how your body and brain react to stress, and what to do about it, can help you avoid or recover from anxiety, depression, and sleep problems.