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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One of our rituals was in the week before Christmas, we’d go shopping and each kiddo would choose a keepsake decoration for the tree. This would forever be their decoration. To make sure we’d remember who owned what (a year is a long time!) I wrote their name and year on the box. The idea is that when they leave home, they’ll have a collection of special decorations for their own tree, plump with throwbacks (‘Oh I remember when we bought this!).

Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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There's no need to enter a code. The books and bundles are already marked with their special sale prices. You'll find them all there - plushies, books, bundles - doing shopping cartwheels, beside themselves excited about helping your young ones feel bigger than anxiety, and shimmy on to brave. 
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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