It is a simple question, but the answer is complex. However, by better understanding the underlying causes of stress, we can actually better control our reaction to it. The sequence of events that happens within our brain when we find ourselves in a stressful situation can literally be traced back millions of years. Let’s consider two scenarios. There is one scenario where the biochemical reaction to stress helps us to survive in a hostile environment. Human beings have developed a complex “fight, freeze, or flight” mechanism to facilitate our survival when there are larger more powerful predators that are targeting us as their next meal. Our larger more advanced brains allow us to perceive threats differently than other species. We have the ability to grasp future consequences that could be threatening and make lightning fast decisions about what will best ensure our survival to make it to our next meal. For example, let’s say we are walking in the woods and encounter a bear, or any other larger, stronger, faster predator. In an instant, our eyes dilate taking in more information. Our brain releases a surge of chemical neurotransmitters and hormones that allow us to process the incoming emergency information better and access stored energy reserves for when the decision of fight, freeze, or flight is made – all within less than a second. The primary human stress hormone that is released is called cortisol. While this biochemical response has played a key role in the survival of our species, it also has a dark side.
The second scenario is very different. Sometimes the brain can become hypersensitive to threats, both present and future. In this scenario, the brain repeatedly signals to release stress hormones, and doing so actually becomes harmful. The prolonged, elevated levels of cortisol cause damage to every system in the body. Cushing’s Syndrome is the constellation of symptoms that result from prolonged elevated levels of stress hormones and is fatal if left untreated. This type of stress can literally kill you. There is a particular pattern of damage to the brain by prolonged exposure to stress hormones through a process called neuronal pruning that actually alters both the physical structure of the brain and the behaviors that result from this anatomical change. I call this the hypercortisolimic wound.
This wound can and does heal in the absence of elevated levels of stress hormones, but not completely, and it is left vulnerable to future injury just like aggravating an old sports injury. Children are particularly vulnerable as their brains are still developing. Emotional instability, impaired affective empathy, personality shifts, and poor decision making are some of the hallmarks of this damage. Elevated stress hormone production is also associated with intimate partner violence and within high conflict relationships. Reinjury of the hypercortisolimic wound in the more vulnerable partner can actually result in covert domestic violence in the form of narcissistic abuse as a defense mechanism. Think of a person in a wheelchair with no feet, no prosthetics, and no crutches. It is unreasonable to expect them to get up out of their chair and walk across the room on their ankle bones, and it is even more unreasonable to get mad at them for not doing it. The hypercortisolimic wound represents a spectrum of damage such that when stress levels increase, it also becomes increasingly harder for that person to behave how they are expected to reasonably behave. In the extreme cases, they may not even have the capacity to have genuine affective empathy for their own children, refuse to accept responsibility for their actions and continually project their deficiencies onto others, and often transmitting their stress induced injuries to their ex significant other and/or their children.
There is another hormone called oxytocin, or the love hormone, that shuts down the production of cortisol. Those who’ve suffered through hypercortisolimic injuries also experience decreased levels of oxytocin, which would normally help to regulate elevated cortisol levels. Depression and social isolation from friends and family are often the result of these decreased oxytocin levels, which may create cycles of more depression and social isolation. Physical contact, hugs, and other forms of affection help to stimulate the release of oxytocin, the same way that infants require physical attention from their parents to regulate their endocrine systems until they are able to do it for themselves. Sexual addiction, hypersexuality and other intimacy issues may partly be driven by these neurochemical imbalances caused by hypercortisolimic injuries.
Stress within personal relationships that result in breakups, divorce, and contested child custody cases and financial disputes that go through the adversarial system of family courts are especially stressful. The threats are significant and protracted, such as financial ruin, loss of reputation, being alienated from one’s own children, and even incarceration. The covert domestic violence caused by narcissistic abuse and pathogenic parenting not only goes unrecognized or ignored, but is incentivized within the context of the adversarial system, leading to increased litigation and subsequent billable hours. Many people entering the jurisdiction of family court for the first time have the expectation of fairness, and the trust that the courts will operate in the best interests of their children only to realize the brokenness of the very system that was supposed to protect them. According to the 2017 Deaths of Despair study, this betrayal trauma has driven many to addiction, severe depressive disorders and suicide.
How we deal with stress is partly a function of biochemical reactions in the brain, but how we choose to interpret our environment and process perceived threats is key to minimizing damage and maximizing healing. Mindfulness and meditation have actually been shown to reverse this damage. Facing our fears and processing them emotionally as well as intellectually in a mindful manner, reduces our long term exposure to unhealthy levels of stress hormones. Forgiveness and acceptance are an important part of the healing process. Forgiving someone for ongoing harm that they continue to inflict is not easy, but it is necessary. It isn’t for the person being forgiven but rather the person doing the forgiving. From a biochemical perspective, this is how to rid oneself of the poisonous levels of cortisol. It’s not easy, but not doing it is to drink the poison of resentment that elevates our own stress levels and harms us not them. Understanding the hypercortisolimic wound and regulating harmful stress levels is key to resuming healthy balance and self-regulation of human stress hormones, preventing reinjury, and resuming a happy, healthy and productive life after a stressful or high conflict breakup, child custody case, or divorce.