Stress is a state that threatens balance to our body systems. This threat can come from our mind, body, or the environment.

Our brain uses a stress response system to respond to stimuli to regulate and maintain balance in our bodies. Our stress response system releases the hormone cortisol into the bloodstream to help regulate our immune system, blood pressure, heart rate, anti-inflammatory response, and blood glucose levels, shifting the balance in the body according to the stimulus.

Our stress response system also helps us react to

extreme stress or danger. For instance, if we cross

the street and suddenly a car races down the street.

In this situation our stress response system releases

cortisol into our bloodstream and takes the faster

pathway directly to our reptilian brain, bypassing

the prefrontal cortex.

The reptilian brain is responsible for our fight–flight–freeze

responses as part of our brain's stress response system.

When we perceive a threat, our brain goes through a

process called the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal axis

(or HPA axis, for short). When we perceive a dangerous

threat, the HPA axis releases cortisol and adrenalin into

our blood stream, preparing our body to react to a

threatening situation through the fight–flight–freeze

response in the reptilian brain. These hormones prepare

our muscles, increase heart rate, and enhance other

systems for fight or flight to respond to the present danger.

This makes sense as a response to danger because we

need to react immediately to the dangerous situation.

But what about the everyday stress in our lives? How does our brain’s stress system respond to stress that is not life-threatening? Well, that depends on our emotional control, coping skills, and present level of stress. If we have strong emotional control and coping skills, we will be more resistant to everyday stressors.

Increased stress makes us more susceptible to decreased emotional control and coping skills. Our stress response system helps us prepare to face certain situations: give a speech, take a test, go on a date, apply for a job, deal with personal and relationship issues, and so on. Stress is a normal aspect of our everyday life, after all. The problem arises when stress becomes excessive. Stress releases cortisol, and excessive stress releases excessive amounts of cortisol, leading to decreased emotional control and coping skills.

The limbic system and the PFC interact to help regulate our thinking and control our emotions, impulses, and response to stress.


The limbic and PFC areas of the brain help regulate the

reptilian brain’s fight–flight–freeze response. The problem

arises when we stay stressed for too long or have chronic

stress. With chronic stress, our stress system can become

fatigued, and excessive stress leads to excessive amounts

of cortisol released into our body. When our body has too

much cortisol, it creates a change in our brain, making the

limbic and PFC areas weak and disconnected. When this

happens, our brain gives too much control to the reptilian

brain. With the PFC and limbic regions of the brain not

functioning at capacity, we get stuck in a reactive state, over using our fight–flight–freeze responses.

Excessive cortisol causes an increase in the volume of our amygdala—our body’s threat detection center—creating an increased perception of fear and anxiety. This also decreases our pre-frontal cortex’s connections to other areas of the brain. These structural changes in our PFC decrease our cognitive abilities such as working memory, impulse control, rational thinking, self-regulation, emotional control, and more.

Excessive stress causes changes that create difficulty with

making decisions, increased frustration, aggression, anxiety,

depression, and a host of other symptoms. Too much stress

causes us to stay in that fight–flight–freeze mode that keeps

our brain a state of emotional over-reactiveness. Stress is a

major contributor to anxiety, depression, and out-of-control

thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

 Causes of Stress

  • Life in general—work, school, family, friends, bills, relationships (cumulative stress)

  • Not sleeping well

  • Poor coping skills

  • Poor eating habits

  • Lack of exercise

  • A lack of purpose

  • Low confidence

  • Poor self-image

  • Injury, illness

  • Trauma, neglect

  • Death of a loved one

  • Disagreements


Types of Stress

There are three types of stress. Positive stress occurs when we are challenged, such as when we take a test, meet new people, or go on a job interview. This type of stress helps us learn and grow, preparing us for greater challenges later in life.

Tolerable stress is severe stress with the support of a parent or friend. When we have this kind of support, the stress subsides quickly. Tolerable stress allows children to learn to react with less stress to new experiences. Tolerable stress is dependent on what types of supportive, or protective buffers are in place. A protective buffer in childhood comes from the support of a parent or friend who makes us feel supported and safe. When we are older, these supportive buffers are dependent on how our brain learned resiliency and coping when we were a child. If we had these protective buffers during childhood, our brain learned to be resilient and cope well. We then carry this learned resiliency into adulthood. If buffers or support aren’t present, especially in early childhood, stress that could be tolerable may be considered toxic.

Toxic stress is repeated stress stemming from abuse (physical or emotional) or serious hardship. An absence of protective relationships that buffer stress will weaken the brain’s architecture and development. This creates a less resilient response to stressors, and will have significant negative effects on the future in the form of emotional and behavioral problems.

Stress can also alter an adult’s resiliency and can lead to increased anxiety and emotional and behavioral problems. We have a limit to the stress we can absorb without consequence. When we are in balance physically, mentally, and emotionally, we can deal with stress. But no matter who we are, too much stress over time becomes chronic stress. Through overexposure to cortisol and other chemicals produced by the HPA axis, constant stress for as little as twenty days can cause actual physical changes in areas certain of our brain that lead to over worry, anxiety, depression, and more.

Trauma and Abuse

By now we understand how stress affects our brain. As mentioned, extreme stress in the form of trauma or abuse alters the way our brain builds itself in early childhood and youth. The way our parents treated us determines the way our brain built itself. Children who are abused or neglected lack the support and encouragement they need because the person they need support and encouragement from are their abusers. This creates a sense of fear and helplessness.


They have no one to help them to feel safe and supported. We can also experience the stress of emotional neglect and trauma from parents who are cold or self-absorbed, as well as these other sources:

  • Parents who were judgmental, harsh, or non-responsive

  • Parents who were depressed, anxious, narcissistic, or self-absorbed

  • Being exposed to lots of yelling and arguing

  • Experiencing physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse or violence

  • Loss of parents due to divorce, abandonment, or death

  • Growing up in a poor environment

  • Poverty and insecurity

  • Having a family member with mental illness

  • Witnessing trauma, substance abuse, or natural disasters


The effects of trauma and abuse last into adulthood, creating anxiety, depression, and many mental, emotional, and physical issues. If we have experienced childhood stress that created fear within us, we can learn to understand and reduce our anxiety, depression, or other emotional issues. Keep learning.


















When stress becomes excessive or chronic, our brain changes in ways that makes it more difficult to think and reason throughout daily life. As this chart shows, excessive stress leads to irrational thinking, a lack of impulse control, decreased short-term memory, and decreased self-regulation.

Reducing stress is paramount for any positive change to occur. If our stress stays high, our brain will have difficulty learning and practicing alternative ways or feeling, thinking and behaving.



Ways to Reduce Stress

  • Change your response to the situation

  • Learn to accept what you cannot change

  • Talk to someone about your worries, frustrations and feelings

  • Take one thing at a time; learn to prioritize and manage time

  • Exercise (stretching, strength training, cardiovascular, etc.)

  • Get enough sleep

  • Balance self-care and work with recreation

  • Do something for yourself every day

  • Practice relaxed breathing or progressive muscle relaxation

  • Meditate

  • Practice mindfulness

  • Go out into nature

  • Listen to music

  • Look at a pleasant scene or piece of art


Reducing stress can be difficult, but is a prerequisite for improving our emotional life. We will continue to learn various ways of reducing our stress and improving our emotions. Learning to understand our emotions better—specifically, improving the way we perceive incoming stimuli—allows us to keep stress at a minimum, or to recognize stress early and take steps to maintain control before stress becomes excessive.

Try some of the above stress-reducing activities. We will learn and practice more of these methods as we continue through the course. When we do these things each day, our stress will reduce. Be patient; it takes time to improve the way we deal with stress and improve our responses to emotional triggers. At first we may fall back into old patterns. This is OK; with consistent practice, we can reduce our stress. We can use the Consequence Analysis Form to review some stressful situations in our life. Keep learning!

Brain Plasticity and Pre-Frontal Cortex Stimulation

Neural plasticity refers to the possible structural changes that can occur in our brain. The structure of our brain’s architecture in some ways reflects the way we use our emotions and personality, our coping skills, impulse control, emotional control, self-regulation, and our ability to trust and have confidence.

Let’s look at how our brain structure affects our emotional life. If we have positive emotional memories in early childhood and youth, our brain turns on some genetic switches. These genetic switches allow the development of coping skills, emotional control, rational thinking, impulse control, trust and confidence, self-regulation, and more. If all goes well and we have limited stress, we develop a positive emotional life with a mostly assertive personality. However, the path from infancy to an adult with a perfect assertive personality and emotional life is not an exact formula. Depending on our environment, experiences, and our parents’ style of parenting, these genetic switches may get turned on or not. None of us are perfect.

If we have positive emotional memories in childhood, our brain structure changes in productive ways. When our childhood is safe and secure, with parents who are positively responsive, we develop certain areas of our brain. With positive environments there is an increase in PFC and hippocampus neural development and connections, allowing the development of our executive functions. (Executive functions include working memory, impulse control, emotional control, self-regulation, rational thinking, goal setting, and more.) The graphic below is a conceptual representation of the consequence of positive emotional memories.


When our emotional memories are negative, our neural plasticity moves towards a decrease in dendrites, synapses, and prefrontal cortex development, leading to a lack of trust and confidence and a decrease in impulse control, working memory, self-regulation, and emotional control. This leads to stress and emotional disarray, as seen in the third column from the left in the chart below. When our emotional memories are negative or we experience excessive stress, we lose confidence and trust.

The upshot of our brain’s neural plasticity is that we can follow a process to regain positive emotions once two requirements are met. The primary requirement for using neural plasticity to improve our emotions is to reduce stress. There are some suggestions for doing so both above and later in the book.

The secondary requirement of the process is to stimulate our pre-frontal cortex. When we stimulate our prefrontal cortex, we cause structural changes, increasing dendrites, synapses, prefrontal cortex connections, and the volume of the hippocampus, while also decreasing the size of the amygdala. We stimulate our prefrontal cortex by challenging our thoughts and emotions. We can also stimulate the prefrontal cortex through exercise, meditation, learning a language, taking a course, or learning to play a musical instrument.

Improve your life. Learn how stress affects your life, an how to reduce stress. Schedule a consultation and let's talk about your emotional goals.



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