If chronic stress is intense enough and goes on long enough, eventually the HPA axis gets too tired to keep producing enough epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol and the levels of these chemicals goes from too high to too low and blood pressure and blood sugar levels which have been elevated may actually drop. Then, however, other problems appear. Because epinephrine and norepinephrine function as neurotransmitters, when they are elevated nerve pathways begin to become less sensitive to them and this is especially true in the hippocampus, an area of the brain that is involved in long-term memory storage. Memory impairment is often a symptom of chronic stress at stages where epinephrine/norepinephrine are high but when the HPA axis begins to “collapse” and the level of the neurotransmitters drops, then that memory impairment can worsen dramatically. In my years as a neuropsychologist, I have seen many cases of memory loss from chronic stress misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease and similar types of dementia.
Another serious consequence of adrenal fatigue involves the inflammatory and immune responses. Because circulating cortisol normally acts to suppress inflammation and to keep the immune system in check so that it doesn’t become overactive, when the adrenals can no longer produce enough cortisol the way is opened for the development of autoimmune and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis, allergies, and Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. Because the immune system is complex, immune system dysfunction can eventually lead to manifestations of both immune and auto-immune illnesses at the same time, such as a person with Hashimoto’s Disease who develops cancer.
Now for Some Good News
PNI has given us some bad news about the high stress lifestyles that so many of us live. At the same, however, it has brought some very good news. The good news is that the body knows and can re-establish a more adaptive way of responding. Shortly after Selye began talking about the Stress Response, Herbert Benson, a Harvard cardiologist, began reporting on the Relaxation Response. He identified this response while studying the physiological changes that occur in people practicing transcendental meditation. The Relaxation Response also involves communication between the brain and other body systems and is characterized by decreases in blood pressure, respiratory rate, heart rate, and muscle tension. The Relaxation Response is mediated by the Parasympathetic Nervous system: while the Sympathetic Nervous System, which was mentioned above, carries signals to the body to gear up for flight or fight, the Parasympathetic Nervous System carries signals to “rest and relax”.
The Relaxation Response has been found to counter many of the negative physiological effects of stress and to enhance immune system function and the body’s capacity for healing. Many activities and lifestyle changes have been shown to support the Relaxation Response and to have beneficial effects on health. These include progressive relaxation, mental imagery, breath work, proper diet and exercise, biofeedback, massage therapy, aromatherapy and many others.
Studies in PNI have shown us that chronic stress and emotions like depression, anger and fear have adverse effects on our physical bodies. There is good reason to believe that negative attitudes in general have negative health repercussions and it seems likely that if we developed studies to examine the immune and general health effects of such negative attitudinal and spiritual states as bigotry, sexism, intolerance and hatred in all its forms we would find that holding these patterns in the heart and mind makes us sick.
Energetically, we may consider anything with a negative resonance to be a “pathogen” that invades the mind, body and spirit and provokes a defensive response within both the physical and subtle bodies. Up to a point, our innate defenses will fight these pathogens off but this fight weakens us if it is continual and eventually we become sick in body and exhausted in spirit.
So it’s important to be aware of the energetic quality of the thought patterns that we hold, as well as of the physical environment around us. The culture that we live in is one in which we are all exposed to a continual flood of negative thought forms: violence, aggression, greed, materialism, terror, hatred. Many of us are also overwhelmed by other less obvious negative patterns in the form of attachments – to possessions, to power, to self-image and status. Just as you would not drink from a stagnant pool due to concerns of bacterial infection, be careful what you “drink up” from the world around you. Many thought forms are harmful to body, mind, and spirit; holding them in our consciousness drains us and squanders our energy.
Native American wisdom counsels us to “walk in beauty” and the whole deeper point of the findings from psychoneuroimmunology is that this isn’t just pretty advice – it’s a key to good health and long life.