Fear & Stress Affect Your Wellbeing – More Than You May Realize

By Dr. Linda J. Dobberstein, DC, Board Certified in Clinical Nutrition

March 28, 2022

Fear & Stress Affect Your Wellbeing – More Than You May Realize
As we enter the third year of the Covid-19 Pandemic, the fear of it lingers in the background despite the drop of case numbers. Fear has been a frequent or even a constant emotion for so many individuals across the globe. Further provocation of fear has occurred with the stress of war and military conflicts, Wall Street volatility, surging gas prices, inflation rates, strikes, and other potential threats. Many individuals display a brave exterior, but fear and stress take a toll. It profoundly affects your physical health – more than you may realize.

Fear: One of the Most Injurious of Human Experiences

Emotional stress, like fear, provokes marked changes in physiology more so than physical stress of overdoing it or other challenging physical states. As stated by G.W. Crile, MD 100 years ago “Intense emotion, especially fear, is one of the most injurious of human experiences”.

The recent JAMA March 1, 2022 issue revisited some of Dr Crile’s comments in “Exhaustion Produced by Extreme Emotion”. His work showed that in response to fear, brain cells in the cerebellum, cerebrum, brain stem, and spinal cord as well as special nerve fibers in the heart became highly activated. The liver and adrenal glands also demonstrated massive metabolic changes in response to fear.

Studies today support the findings that “emotion causes a more rapid exhaustion than is caused by exertion or by trauma, except extensive mangling of tissue, or by any toxic stimulus except the perforation of viscera.” The result of fear stress negatively affects your entire being.

Global Decline of Emotional Wellbeing

Since the start of Covid-19, emotional wellbeing has declined. Mental health issues with fear, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and stress have sky-rocketed across the globe impacting more than half of the general population. Fear of Covid has actually led to a new disorder named COVID Stress Syndrome. Most everyone can likely agree that fear stress has increased in their lives in recent times from Covid and other concerns.

Fear and the Limbic System

Fear is a natural emotion designed to warn us of a threat to life. Fear and threats trigger powerful responses in the limbic system of your brain especially when you have no control. The limbic system is a group of structures deep within your brain that is involved with control of emotion, motivation, behavior, sense of smell, memory, and the autonomic nervous system.

Fear stress activates the hypothalamus. This structure lies at the center of the limbic system and is a major neurological relay hub for your brain. A significant relay part is the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA) where neurochemicals are released from the brain and sent to the adrenal glands when fear or threat occurs. It causes mitochondria in the adrenal glands to increase production of cortisol and other stress hormones that flood your body and engages the fight/flight sympathetic autonomic nervous system. In a crisis, this enables you to run fast or have supernatural strength.

Fear stress also activates the amygdala, another part of the limbic system. The amygdala regulates responses to anxiety, fear, emotional memories, and other processes.

During times of stress and strong emotions, activity levels in the limbic system increase which also ramps up metabolic activity and oxidative stress throughout your body. When acute fear stress is resolved, the fight-flight stress response calms down. Nerve and mitochondrial activity and metabolism down regulate and homeostasis returns.

Chronic Fear Stress Changes Your Physiology

With long-term fear stress, the effects on your body are more pronounced. Your natural homeostasis is disrupted and leads to a multitude of physiological changes. Several hormones become dysregulated and leads to increased heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, and insulin levels and results in higher risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.

Memory, Mood, and Cognitive Maladaptation

Chronic, unpredictable fear causes your brain to experience further maladaptation. Fear stress impairs your memory, decision-making ability, and cognitive skills. It leads to symptoms of chronic anxiety, depression, insomnia, burnout, and even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Impaired Melatonin Production

Elevated cortisol and other stress hormones are excitatory which block the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a sleep hormone and a powerful antioxidant for the brain and your body. Think about the time you or your children watched a scary movie at night and found it difficult to get sleep.

Extensive Effect on Gut Health

Chronic fear stress impacts the “gut-brain axis” which leads to a breakdown in gut health. Changes in gut motility (too fast or too slow) occur. Poor gut mucosal lining repair and impaired blood flow leads to increased intestinal permeability. Gut flora is disturbed as is the secretion of the natural digestive juices. This makes you more prone to irritable bowel disorders, food intolerances and allergies, indigestion, acid reflux, GERD, gut dysbiosis and germ overgrowth and a myriad of other things.

Chronic Low-Grade Inflammation

Chronic emotional and physiological fear responses throughout the limbic system, brain, and your body are linked with chronic low-grade inflammation that causes decline in health. During pregnancy and early childhood, fear stress exposure affects that individual’s resiliency throughout life because of its impact during neurological formation.

Immune Health

Long-term chronic fear stress and high cortisol impairs immune system function. It suppresses the production of immunoglobulin A and other immune soldiers that monitor and take care of germs. This increases the risk for upper respiratory infections or reactivation of old infections. Wound recovery and healing are slower with emotional stress.

Fear-Related Disorders: Strong Risk Factor for Severe Covid-19

Anxiety disorders are one of the strongest risk factors for severe Covid-19 illness, according a recent study. Data analyzed from nearly 5 million hospitalized adults with Covid-19 in 800 hospitals in the United States showed that the strongest risk factors for Covid-related death were obesity, poorly managed diabetes, multiple chronic health problems, or anxiety and fear-related disorders. Children with anxiety and fear-related disorders as well as depression had a higher risk for Covid-19 illness as well.

It bears worth repeating again the statement from Dr Criles from 100 years ago, “Intense emotion, especially fear, is one of the most injurious of human experiences”. Fear stress is harmful and injures health more than most individuals realize.

Limit Screen Time

Studies confirm that those individuals who spend large amounts of time watching or listening to the media have the unintended effect of increased worry. We have seen this in the past with ongoing broadcasts and playbacks of fearful events like 9/11 and other devastating events. Frequent exposure to the social media and news related to Covid-19 is considered a risk factor for decreased mental health.

What you are exposed to and feed your body, mind, and soul affects your emotional wellbeing and physical health. Make safe choices with news and social media. Limit screen time.

Nourish Hope and Belly Breathing

You can choose behaviors like prayer and meditation to focus on the blessings in your life rather than threats and fears. This nourishes hope. Hope, faith, and love abate fear and improve mental health.

Engage in deep belly breathing rather than short shallow breaths with your shoulders crunched up in stress. Deep belly breathing engages your parasympathetic nervous system (rest/relax/repair) and supports Vagus nerve activity. Belly breathing rapidly dampens the stress response on the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight/fear) and limbic system.

Listen to the squeals of laughter and giggles from children as these sounds help you focus on pleasure rather than the struggles of this world. Snuggles with your kids or furry friends and pleasurable, toe-tapping music makes the spirit be joyful. Engage in laughter by watching a favorite movie or TV show. Use other activities like knitting or crocheting, woodworking, gardening, and walking on the beach or grass barefoot to help bring joy and grounding to a stressed mind and body.

Support for Resiliency

Fear stress increases work demands on your body. It needs to have enough nutritional reserves and other buffers to calm down and manage the increased oxidative stress. Feed your brain and body with exercise and nutrients. This simple act of a balanced diet with whole foods and physical exercise is so fundamental to health, yet these basic needs are often not fulfilled.

Processed, high calorie, nutrient poor foods and sedentary lifestyles have become the norm for so many in America and other industrialized countries. It is a perfect set-up for chronic underlying low-grade inflammation that is worsened with chronic fear and emotional stress. The return to physical activity and whole foods is critical for your mental and physical health resiliency.

Mitochondria Resiliency and Protection

Exercise that you like to do is a great way to burn off stress and build new mitochondria. Mitochondria in your adrenal glands work to produce cortisol. Exercise helps regenerate and make new mitochondria in your adrenal glands, brain, and throughout your body.

Preconditioning your mitochondria with nutrition prior to exercise helps offset the fatigue, soreness, and post-work out inflammation. Coenzyme Q10 ubiquinol, B vitamins, vitamin C, and a broad array of antioxidants and herbal adaptogens are very helpful for nurturing and protecting mitochondria and the HPA axis and adrenal glands.

Magnesium: A Natural Buffer Against Stress

Optimal levels of magnesium are fundamental to manage the effects physical and emotional stress. Insufficient magnesium intake is considered a “public health crisis” and yet its vital importance is ignored in the mainstream.

Magnesium also helps support thyroid function as it thwart off the effects of fear stress and high cortisol. Magnesium is required to calm nerves and the limbic system, and supports brain repair. It also helps the adrenals glands and mitochondria manage stress responses. Magnesium is like a security blanket that buffers against stress responses.

Limbic System Needs Trace Minerals

The limbic system also requires a balance of zinc, iron, copper, and selenium. These trace minerals are involved with memory, mood, motivation, neurotransmitters, mitochondrial function, and a multitude of enzymatic functions for limbic system activity.

Everyone experiences fear and stress with today’s uncertainty. No matter your profession or age, you must be proactive for your mental health. You and your children’s resilience and well-being depend upon simple yet profound things - exercise, nutrition, and hope. How are you doing?

Additional resources:

Top 7 Supplements for Stress Resiliency, Sleep, and Mood

Taming Anxiety Requires Healthy Brain Mitochondrial Function

Feed Your Busy Brain

Adaptogens, Stress, and the HPA Axis

Stress and Adrenals: Restoring the HPA Axis

Social Isolation and Stress Management

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