The Nature of Stress
Most of us think about stress as a negative thing. However, stress can help our bodies and brains remain alert and responsive to any surprises life throws in our direction. Chronic stress on the other hand can wreak havoc, triggering a host of maladies including heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety.
The response to short-term stress powers the “fight-or-flight” response that allows animals to react quickly to perceived danger. When we’re startled or acutely stressed the amygdala (the fear center of our brain) activates our central stress response system. This is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenalcortical (HPA) axis because it is comprised of the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and the adrenal cortex. It regulates hormones, particularly cortisol. By rapidly increasing glucose levels, speeding the heart rate, and increasing blood flow to the muscles in our arms and legs, this stress response allows us to respond to a threat. After the danger has passed, the system works to return hormone levels to normal.
Major problems can occur when stress becomes chronic. The stress response system stays ramped up all the time. The same hormones that are so important for the fight-or-flight response can lead to digestive issues, trouble sleeping, and a weakened immune system, making a person more susceptible to viruses and chronic health problems.
How Chronic Stress Affects the ADHD Brain
Researchers have discovered that stress changes the way the brain’s neurons communicate with each other. Thus, chronic stress can cause our brains, nervous systems, and our behavior to adjust to a vigilant and reactive state.
Writing in the Journal of Attention Disorders, researchers noted that ADHD symptoms are associated with stress, especially for those adults with the inattentive presentation. Chronic stress makes symptoms worse, and even causes chemical and structural changes to the brain, affecting its ability to function. In Nature Neuroscience, researchers note that stress affects the prefrontal cortex, the principal location of the brain affected by ADHD. There, stress reduces neuronal firing and impairs cognitive abilities.
There is a decrease in the executive functioning abilities of the brain, affecting, for example, the person’s ability to organize information and activities, and to manage emotions. This in turn can, in time, damage relationships with family, friends and colleagues.
The ADHD brain can be more susceptible to chronic stress due to a variety of triggers, including:
- Over-stimulation – e.g., noises, smells and even certain textures or visual triggers
- Foods and additives
- Lack of sleep
In essence, stress can aggravate sysmptoms which can in turn make an individual with ADHD more susceptible to stress.
Strategies to Manage Stress
While individuals with ADHD can be more susceptible to the health impacts of chronic stress, the good news is there are straightforward strategies you can use to reduce and manage the daily stresses in your life.
- Take regular breaks when performing tasks
- Engage in a regular exercise routine
- Practice relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation
- Create routines that help you manage your day more efficiently without having to stress about the details
- Use tools to help you manage time more effectively so that doesn’t become a stressor at work or home
- Set boundaries on your time and availability to conserve your energy and create time for yourself
- Practice self-compassion in your life; the inner critic can be a constant source of real stress, but you can tame it
If implementing these strategies feels overwhelming, work with coach or therapist to help you get started. There is no way to avoid stress completely in our lives, but we can manage it so it doesn’t become physically and mentally destructive.