We all feel stressed at some point or another. Whether your stress is due to a pressing deadline at work, financial difficulties or an illness, your body reacts to it in much the same way that everyone else’s does: with physical symptoms. Physical symptoms of stress include lack of energy, aches, pains, insomnia, headaches, low libido, chest pain, racing pulse, dry mouth and more. Unfortunately, these symptoms can make you feel quite ill. However, there is a way to rid your life of stress and learn how to experience less stress in the future.
Neuroplasticity: How Habits Become Who You Are
As humans, we are creatures of habit. We like to get our coffee from the same place each morning, drive the same route to work, and hang around with the same people at break time. While it may seem like sticking to the beaten path signifies lack of spontaneity and the absence of a sense of adventure, it actually has nothing to do with that. It’s the way our brains are wired.
Our brains are constantly changing, forming new pathways for neurons to travel along and getting rid of ones that are rarely used. While most of these pathways are developed before the age of three, your environment – your experiences and habits – continue to remap your brain throughout your lifetime. Neuron pathways that are frequently used become strengthened, causing your brain to use them more frequently and by default. Pathways that are seldom used become weakened and are eventually eliminated.
What does this have to do with stress? By allowing your brain to continuously respond to stress, you program your brain for stress. When this happens, stress symptoms occur more frequently and at the first signs of distress. You can liken it to a mouse learning a new maze. At first, it takes some time for the mouse to navigate the maze, but before long, it speeds right along without hesitation. Once you become programmed to stress, your neurons do the exact same thing and they start using stress as a default setting.
Prolonged Stress Can Lead to a Mental Health Disorder
Mental health disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and other anxiety disorders all arise from the brain trying to deal with stress. For example, in a person with OCD, disorganization is often a stressor. By organizing items – lining them up or alphabetizing them – the sufferer gets temporary relief from stress symptoms.
So how does the brain create a disorder by dealing with stress in the moment? It all goes back to neuroplasticity. Each time you do something to alleviate your stress or anxiety symptoms such as changing your route to work, avoiding social situations, or fidgeting with the button on your jacket, you create a pathway or strengthen an existing pathway. When this happens, you will be more likely to respond to the stimuli in the same manner. When these habits become bothersome or start to disrupt your life, it is considered a disorder.
However simple this may seem, there are other factors at play as well. Genetic predisposition, trauma, physical brain damage, certain medications, substance abuse and chemical imbalances can lead to disorders too. Interestingly, though, researchers have begun to realize that you can change your brain chemistry as well through habitual practices.
How to Retrain Your Brain for a Stress-Free Life
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been successfully used to treat anxiety and social disorders. In fact, more than 50-percent of those observed in a long-term study were able to find relief from GAD symptoms after undergoing CBT. Nearly 40-percent of them were considered symptom free 6 to 12 months after treatment.
What does this have to do with your stress symptoms? CBT essentially retrains the brain by creating new, healthy pathways. Which means you can actually train your brain to deal with stress in positive ways. Instead of feeling sick to your stomach and overwhelmed by financial issues, you can train your brain to get busy solving them. Once your brain gets used to this pathway, it will become your default setting.
Applying CBT to your life is not difficult. First, you must recognize your physical symptoms of stress and study how you respond or try to fix the situation. If the behavior is negative or something you wish to change, come up with an alternate course of action. For example, if you leave the store when it’s crowded instead of finishing your shopping, your goal would likely be to remain at the store and finish your shopping. By making yourself do just that and dealing with stress symptoms in the moment through deep breathing and other exercises, you can retrain your brain and stop the flight response. After making yourself stay again and again, the urge to flee will become less noticeable and will eventually disappear altogether, allowing you to shop in crowded stores.
As you can see, your brain is always changing. Each and every decision you make molds your brain and affects how it will react to situations in the future. For a healthy, stress-free life, all you have to do is train your brain to think and react positively when stress comes calling.
 Doidge, Norman (2007). “The Brain that Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science.” New York: Viking.
 Durham, R.C., “Does cognitive-behavioral therapy influence the long-term outcome of generalized anxiety disorder? An 8-14year follow-up of two clinical trials.” Psychology Medicine. 2003 April;33.