The Effects of Chronic Stress: When “Red Mind” Is in Overdrive

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Blue Mind" by Wallace J. Nichols. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do humans have stress responses? When do these responses cross the line from being helpful to being harmful? What impact does chronic stress have on our minds and bodies?

In Blue Mind, Wallace J. Nichols advocates the Blue Mind state—a serene experience that we sometimes have when we’re around water. The opposite is the Red Mind state, and he explains what happens when we’re in that state on an ongoing basis.

Read more to learn about the effects of chronic stress.

The Effects of Chronic Stress

In his book, Nichols uses the term “Blue Mind” to describe water’s impact on the brain. Blue Mind is a calm, peaceful, contented state similar to one achieved through meditation, and it can be induced by proximity to water.

He distinguishes Blue Mind from “Red Mind,” which is a mental state characterized by stress and arousal, and he presents the Blue Mind state as a potent antidote to the effects of chronic stress (the Red Mind state). The stress response, also known as the fight or flight response, is an important feature that helps us deal with danger. It enables us to defend ourselves from threats or remove ourselves from threatening situations by flooding our bodies with stress hormones like norepinephrine, glucocorticoids, and cortisol. These hormones enhance our senses and awareness so we can better cope with danger.

(Shortform note: Nichols may use the terms “Blue Mind” and “Red Mind” to describe states of calm and stress because these states are indeed so different as to be akin to using two different minds. The changes that chronic stress in particular brings about in the brain lead you to function very differently than you do when you’re not stressed. When you’re chronically stressed, the stress response that Nichols describes never shuts off, resulting in mood problems like depression and anxiety, as well as digestive issues and decreased libido and fertility. Again, the stress response isn’t inherently bad, but it’s key that you be able to switch out of it into a Blue Mind state to avoid the negative side-effects of chronic stress.)

However, this stress response also triggers when we’re facing non-life-threatening situations like the minor stresses we deal with every day as part of our normal lives. Regularly triggering the stress response can cause long-term damage to our health and well-being, especially when we experience stress that lasts three weeks or more. Such long-lasting stress can impair higher-level brain functions and make the brain’s fear and aggression structures overactive, which can impede judgment and cause depression and anxiety. It can also cause the hippocampus, the brain structure that creates new neurons (or brain cells) when the brain is learning, to atrophy, reducing cognitive ability.

According to Nichols, staying in the stress response state for too long also has ramifications on the body. It can cause reduced libido, autoimmune diseases, digestion issues, and musculoskeletal problems. All of these together lead to an increased risk of early death.

Additional Effects of Chronic Stress and How to Manage It

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert M. Sapolsky explains that, even though the stress response developed to deal with immediate physical dangers, it can also be triggered by imagined dangers, which is why situations that are non-life-threatening can put us into the stress response state. All we have to do is think about our problems to trigger this physiological response.

Sapolsky also details some additional effects of the stress response, including stunted growth, poor memory, sleep disorders, and accelerated aging. He explains that stress is harder to deal with when you’re unable to vent your frustration, when you feel the stressor is unpredictable or out of your control, or when you lack a social support system.

Additionally, he offers some tips on how to better manage your stress. He recommends exercising to help you vent your frustration, establishing a consistent schedule and routine to make your stress more predictable, and strengthening your social relationships and building new ones to enhance your social support network. 

However, Red Mind is not all bad, explains Nichols. Extreme sports such as skydiving, rock climbing, and surfing can induce the stress response associated with Red Mind, and doing so in such a controlled, deliberate way can make it easier to manage the stress response from other aspects of life. Researchers suspect that this is because dealing with the stress response from these activities helps us learn how to put into perspective the stress we experience from less dangerous activities.

(Shortform note: If you can’t do extreme sports, you might also be able to achieve their stress-reducing benefits by reframing the stress you experience in your daily life. Experts suggest that if we consciously reframe the way we think about the stress response, we can use it to our advantage to enhance our performance. If we view it as a means of unleashing a greater level of ability, we can more easily handle the stressors we’re dealing with and also help reduce stress’s negative long-term effects.)

The Effects of Chronic Stress: When “Red Mind” Is in Overdrive

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Here's what you'll find in our full Blue Mind summary:

  • How water has a profound impact on our well-being and health
  • Society’s relationship with water and how it might be improved
  • Activities you can do in or around water to reap the healing benefits

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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