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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During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens
Would you be more likely to take advice from someone who listened to you first, or someone who insisted they knew best and worked hard to convince you? Our teens are just like us. If we want them to consider our advice and be open to our influence, making sure they feel heard is so important. Being right doesn't count for much at all if we aren't being heard.
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Hear what they think, what they want, why they think they're right, and why it’s important to them. Sometimes we'll want to change our mind, and sometimes we'll want to stand firm. When they feel fully heard, it’s more likely that they’ll be able to trust that our decisions or advice are given fully informed and with all of their needs considered. And we all need that.
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 #positiveparenting #parenting #parenthood #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #adolescence 
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"We’re pretty sure that when you say no to something it’s because you don’t understand why it’s so important to us. Of course you’ll need to say 'no' sometimes, and if you do, let us know that you understand the importance of whatever it is we’re asking for. It will make your ‘no’ much easier to accept. We need to know that you get it. Listen to what we have to say and ask questions to understand, not to prove us wrong. We’re not trying to control you or manipulate you. Some things might not seem important to you but if we’re asking, they’re really important to us.❤️" 
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#neurodevelopment #neuronurtured #childdevelopment #parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting

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