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.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join our newsletter

We would love you to follow us on Social Media to stay up to date with the latest Hey Sigmund news and upcoming events.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

The point of any ‘discipline’ is to teach, not to punish. (‘Disciple’ means student, follower, learner.)

Children don’t learn through punishment. They comply through punishment, but the mechanism is control and fear. 

The problem with this, is that the goal becomes avoiding us when things go wrong, rather than seeking us out. We can’t influence them if we’ve taught them to keep their messes hidden from us. 

We can’t guide our kiddos if they aren’t open to us, and they won’t be open to us if they are scared of what we will do. 

We all have an instinctive need to stay relationally safe. This means feeling free from rejection, shame, humiliation. The problem with traditional discipline is that it rejects and judges the child, rather than the behaviour. 

Hold them close, reject their behaviour. 

This makes it more likely that they will turn toward us instead of away from us. It opens the way for us to guide, lead, teach. It makes it safe for them to turn and face what’s happened so they can learn what they might do differently in the future.

Rather than, ‘How do I scare them out of bad behaviour?’ try, ‘How do I help them to do better next time?’ 

Is the way you respond to their messy decisions or behaviour more likely to drive them away from you in critical times or towards you? Let it be towards you.

This doesn’t mean giving a free pass on big behaviour. It means rather than leading through fear and shame, we lead through connection, conversation and education. 

The ‘consequence’ for big behaviour shouldn’t be punishment to make them feel bad, but the repairing of any damage so they can feel the good in who they are. It’s the conversation with you where they turn and face their behaviour. This will always be easier when they feel you loving them, and embracing who they are, even when you reject what they do.♥️
.
#parent #parents #mindfulparenting #gentleparenting
Kununurra I’m so excited to be with you tonight. I’ll be giving you super practical ways to strengthen your kiddos and teens against all sorts and all levels of anxiety - big anxiety, little anxiety, anxiety about school, separation, trying new things - all of it. You’ll walk away with things you can do tonight - and I can’t wait! Afterwards we’ll have time for a chat where we can dive into your questions (my favourite part). This is a free event organised by the Parenting Connection WA (I love this organisation so much!). The link for tickets is in my story♥️
Hello Broome! Can’t wait to see you tonight. Tickets still available. The link is in my story. 

Thank you Parenting Connection WA for bringing me here and for the incredible work you do to support and strengthen families.♥️
What a weekend! Thank you Sydney for your open hearts, minds and arms this weekend at @resilientkidsconference. Your energy and warmth were everything.♥️
I LOVE being able to work with early childhood centres and schools. The most meaningful, enduring moments of growth and healing happen on those everyday moments kids have with their everyday adults - parents, carers, teachers. It takes a village doesn’t it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This