Stress Management: The Biological Nature of Stress

Conviction is one of the pillars of manhood and the ability to handle stress is the foundation to gritting conviction. If you are looking for a way to manage stress better, there are millions of tips out there about how to handle stress with grace, such as the following:

  1. Have a support system
  2. Increase your social network
  3. Pick Up a hobby
  4. Go outside More

But this is not a self-help article and we will not be talking about why the above things are important. Instead, we will talk about the biological nature of stress. while not necessary, understanding how stress works biologically will give you a fresh perspective and let you identify, from the millions of tips on stress management, which ones are the most applicable to you.

The Effect of Stress on Cognitive Abilities

One of the most prominent effects of stress on the human mind is its influence on cognitive abilities. A study published in Molecular Psychiatry found that those who experience stress are more vulnerable to mood changes and anxiety disorder later in their lives. At one point most of us have experienced one of the following situations:

  1. pulling an all-nighter right before finals and magically understood all-important points they were nowhere in your mental map before, and acing the test.
  2. Got into the “zone” during intense sports or dangerous situations and feel the flow of time slows down and all sensory inputs heighten.
  3. Being constantly under stress and your mind starts to lose focus even experiences memory loss.
  4. Took that last glass of neat Whiskey and forgot how you ended up on your sofa with only one shoe.

The effect of stress on cognitive abilities are two folded. In general, acute stress on a well-rested individual heightens cognitive abilities, while chronic stress dulls the mind.

Many studies report that women’s performance and affective patterns fluctuate with their menstrual cycle. A recent study shows the mediation of this effect may be attributable to stress.

Stress and the Immune System

However, in addition to the neurological processes, stress also reduces the effectiveness of the immune system and makes us more susceptible to infections. Studies have found that the endocrine and the immune system play important roles in mediating stress responses in mammals, including humans.

Under acute stress: the immune system releases pro-inflammatory cytokines into the bloodstream. These proinflammatory cytokines then go around your body and trigger all kinds of microcirculatory immune responses such as increased capillary permeability, leukocyte recruitment and accumulation, and release of downstream inflammatory mediators, resulting in rashes, itches, oily scalps, redness, swelling, heat, pain, and loss of tissue function, etc. To put it simply, stress results in decreased production of the body’s lymphocytes — the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower the number of lymphocytes in the body, the more at risk you are for viruses and other pathogens.

In the study by Medical School of the University of Virginia, it was found that these inflammatory cytokines, such as Interleukin 1 beta,  Interleukin 4, Interleukin 6, TNF alpha, accumulate in the meningeal space. This research aims to study the brain in connection with the immune system. IL-4 which has an important role in immunity also plays critical role in the functioning of brain-like memory and learning. It was shown that an increase in IL-4 level, measurable by Bosterbio IL4 ELISA kit, causes a release of a series of signal molecules in the brain, including glucagon. Even though IL-4 does not pass through the brain-blood barrier (BBB), endothelial cells in the BBB are found to mediate such signal pathways across the BBB. The increase in Glucagon levels then causes the cells in the central nervous system to function more actively resulting in the increase in cognitive functions, including spatial recognition and short term memory, under acute stress. This effect, however, can exhaust the reservoir of glucagon receptors in the central neural system resulting in the diminishing marginal effect on this phenomenon. When treated with chronic stress, The boost in cognitive functions diminishes over time, eventually resulting in the dampening of spatial recognition and short term memory. This is a classic “rainy day fund” mechanism of the body to deal with emergencies. Similar mechanisms, where the body releases stored potential to deal with emergencies, are observed in many studies.

It is clear that immune activities going on in your body affects your stress on a molecular level. With this in mind, when you’re expecting highly stressful activities in the near future, plan your lifestyle accordingly to minimize inflammation is a great way to increase your stress tolerance without putting in huge amounts of effort. Simple things such as avoiding inflammation-inducing foods and beverages, and napping more often could free up bandwidth for the real challenges ahead. While traditional stress relief activities such as drinking, tobacco and binge eating could be actually adding more stress to you–you just don’t feel it right away because your glucagon receptors have not been depleted yet.

Dr. Kipnis study on stress

Dr. Jonathan Kipnis studies the intercommunication of the immune system with the nervous system and has been the senior author of several landmark research papers in this field.

Kipnis’ most significant breakthrough has been the 2015 detection of lymphatic vessels surrounding the brain. Kipnis thinks these vessels clear waste from brain tissue and transfers to the lymph nodes. As we are getting on in years, these vessels start to break down, leaving the brain littered.

Dr. Jonathan Kipnis and the team of researchers at the University of Virginia Medical School have discovered that sick mice perform worse at learning and memory tasks than mice with healthy immune systems. Kipnis’ team exposed mice to cat urine, a sweeping moment of stress for them as it means the presence of a predator. Mice with healthful immune systems showed fewer signs of stress, and thus, they were able to make the right decisions.


With all the science above, it is apparent that the amount of stress a person can take is partially dependent on actual protein receptors in the brain, and cannot simply be stretched indefinitely by the strength of the will. Be mindful of your stress tolerance and treating it as a resource important skill for manhood.

This content is sponsored by Snow Qu.

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