The Effects of Stress on the Brain

The Effects of Stress on the Brain

Life and stress can feel like a package deal but some people are more susceptible to stress than others. The same crisis can cause some to grow and others to break and become sick with illnesses such as depression.

Researchers have shed the light on why.

The answer lies in our genes. The response to stress is determined by a complex interaction between versions of the depression gene and the environment.

The research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, has found that stressful life events interact with certain genes to change the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that processes emotions and transfers new information into long-term memories. An effectively functioning hippocampus is critical for learning.

What does stress do to the brain?

The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to stress because of the damaging effects of cortisol, the stress hormone.

When the body is subject to stress, cortisol attacks the neurons and the hippocampus shrinks in size. This is commonly seen in people with depression and is the reason for some of the physical symptoms.

The effect of cortisol is to force attention onto the emotions being experienced, while at the same time compromising the capacity to take in new information.

The duration of stress can be almost as damaging as the degree of stress.

What about positive stress?

On the other hand, positive stress, such as that which is experienced in exciting social situations, can cause the hippocampus to increase in size.

It’s our genes that decide whether the same stressful event causes the hippocampus to shrink or enlarge, and therefore whether the stress is good or bad for our brain.

The greater the number of risk genes somebody has, the more likely it is that stressful life events will shrink the hippocampus.

If there are only a small number or none of the risk genes present, the same stressful event can have a positive effect on the anatomy of the brain.

The research. What they did.

Researchers collected information from healthy participants about any stressful life events they’d been through, such as deaths of loved ones, divorce, unemployment, financial losses, relocations, serious illnesses or accidents.

Genetic analyses were also carried out, as well as scans of the subjects’ hippocampi.

What They Found.

As explained by lead researcher, Lukas Pezawas, ‘People with the three gene versions believed to encourage depression had a smaller hippocampus than those with fewer or none of these gene versions, even though they had the same number of stressful life events.’

On the other hand, people with one or none of the risk genes had an enlarged hippocampus when compared with people who had been through similar life events but had more of the risk genes.

Other Effects of Stress on the Brain 

As well as changing the size of the hippocampus, stress has also been found to have the following effects on the brain:

  • The fight or flight response becomes activated. When this happens, the part of the brain responsible for automatic reactive responses takes charge, sidelining a more thoughtful, considered response.
  • Increased cortisol can result in diminished short-term memory function.
  • The hippocampus also plays a role in immune system function so when its efficiency is compromised, so too is the immune system. This is why illness often strikes when you’re stressed.

Nature/nurture is a topic that has fuelled lively debate. In the case of the neurological effects of stress, it would seem both make it off the bench.

‘These results are important for understanding neurobiological processes in stress-associated illnesses such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder … It is ultimately our genes that determine whether stress makes us psychologically unwell or whether it encourages our mental health.’ – Lukas Pezawas, lead researcher.

Genes don’t mean destiny though, and the environment and our response to stressful situations have an enormous influence on the final outcome. Awareness of a susceptibility to fall quicker and harder to the ravages of stress makes it all the more important to take deliberate measures to keep stress levels under control as much as possible.

Mindfulness: A Heroic Defence Against Stress

Mindfulness is exceptional in its capacity to control stress and the effectiveness of this ancient practice is seeing it take its place in the mainstream. Everybody can do it. Everybody can make time for it. Here’s how it works …

As little as one minute a day of concentrated stillness can have a huge effect, but the more you can do, the more the effect will carry through. 15 minutes three times a week will have a profound effect on mental health. 

Mindfulness is all about experiencing what’s happening in the moment rather than being strapped by the past (rumination – going over and over the details – which can lead to depression) or worrying about the future (which can lead to anxiety). To practice basic mindfulness:

  • breathe in for five seconds,
  • hold for five seconds,
  • breathe out for five seconds. 
  • while you do this, focus on your sensory experience. What are you experiencing right now?What do you feel against your skin? What smells can you notice? Sounds? Temperature? What’s happening beneath your skin? Bodily sensations? Can you hear your breathing? Feel your heartbeat? 
  • let other thoughts come and go but the idea is not to hang on to them for too long. Stay as much as you can in the present moment.

Mindfulness can take a bit of practice, especially if your mind is used to racing around on its own. The more you practice, the easier it will become.

[irp posts=”890″ name=”Rethinking Stress: How Changing Your Thinking Could Save Your Life”]

3 Comments

Hannah

I am a healthy 24 year old female. I am fine when my life is stable, but things started to change: my family decided we are moving after Christmas, I was going to go to college somewhere else but then suddenly we switched to me being closer to where they would be moving, some relationships changed, I was told I should break up with my boyfriend, and then the other night, my family left to go on a trip. I was overtired and over-caffinated. I began having panic attacks and for the last couple of days, I have been anxious and sleepy and feel like I am loosing my mind. Maybe this helps explain that.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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