Remarkable New Research About Stress and the Brain

Remarkable New Research About Stress and the Brain

In a perfect world, stress would come with an adjustable dial. And there would be six day weekends. And coffee, beds and breakfasts would make themselves. What we lack in adjustable dials and the automated making of beautiful things, we make up for in creativity and adaptability, and a profound capacity to protect ourselves from the assault of stress. 

We might not be able to stop the stress, but we can stop it causing ruin. New research explains why giving ourselves priority needs to become less of an option and more of a must do.

Relationships, money, children, work, and day to day life stress mean that it’s not always possible to adjust the volume and intensity of stress in our lives. What we can do is manage it, but tending to our own needs often doesn’t make it anywhere near the ‘must do’ list, hovering instead on the ‘maybe one day when I get a cheque six million dollars and don’t have to work or buy my own groceries’ list. If you have ever needed a reason to get serious about taking time out to de-stress, remarkable new research has something for you.

Stress and the brain. What they found.

The research by Rockefeller University was conducted on mice, but don’t let that take anything away from the findings and what they mean for us humans. Mice are often used in studies because they are so genetically, biologically and physiologically close to humans. 

In the study, published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, researchers exposed the mice to chronic stress by keeping them in a small space for 21 days. They then looked at the mice to see which of their behaviours had changed. They were also interested to see whether there were any changes in the brain cells within the three different areas of the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions such as fear and anxiety. 

The exposure to chronic stress caused changes in the amygdala. These changes have been associated with anxiety and depression. 

In the first area of the amygdala the researchers looked at, the stress did not appear to cause any noticeable changes.

In the second area, they noticed the branches of the cells had become longer and more complex. This is a healthy change and points to the ability of the mice to adapt to certain environments.

In the third area, they noticed shrinkage of the branches that connected with other parts of the brain. This change is a worrying one. When these crucial connections are lost, the brain is less able to adapt to new experiences. Effectively, it becomes trapped in an anxious or depressed state.

Protecting the Brain.

The research also highlighted a new experimental drug that might protect the brain against these changes. 

‘While this rewiring from chronic stress can contribute to disorders such as anxiety and can contribute to disorders such as anxiety and depression, our experiments with mice showed that the neurological and behavioral effects of stress can be prevented with treatment by a promising potential antidepressant that acts rapidly.’ Carla Nasca, researcher.

The treatment that was used to protect against the effects of chronic stress was acetyl carnitine, a molecule that is being explored for its potential as a rapid-acting antidepressant. The mice who were treated with this drug were more sociable and showed less adverse brain changes, than the stressed mice who weren’t treated. Humans and mice both naturally produce acetyl carnitine. Animals that are more vulnerable to depression show a deficiency in acetyl carnitine. Researchers are looking into whether people with depression show the same abnormally low levels.  

Here’s the rub. As with any physiological symptom, the symptoms of stress are a sign that something needs changing. Chronic stress is a sign that the environment is drawing on more emotional, physical and/or physiological resources than you have. 

The promise of the experimental medication is that is will protect the brain from the neurological effects of stress that we know about, but it doesn’t get rid of the stress. Stress has other effects on the body and mind, outside the brain.

Of course, it’s not always possible to change your life, which is why protecting your whole self from the effects of stress is so important. Medication may be one part of the answer, but it’s certainly not all of it, nor is it the only one. 

If I can’t reduce stress in my life, what then?

Ok. So you can’t leave you job, your relatives, your bills, the traffic and the nailbiting ups and downs of The Great British Bake Off (for the love of lemons why does anyone have to leave?) – what can you do instead?

A powerful way to protect against stress is to reframe it. Research from Harvard has found that reframing stress as helpful rather than harmful can reverse the physiological changes brought about by stress. 

In a massive study that involved almost 30,000 people, researchers found that people who experienced high stress and who believed that it was harmful for them, had a 43% increase in the risk of premature death. However – people who were highly stressed but didn’t believe that it would harm them had a risk of premature death that was even lower than people who claimed they had a pretty low-stress existence.

And finally …

Stress and modern living often tend to come as a bundle. If we can’t change the stressors that cozy up beside us day after day, we need to change the way we deal with them. There are many life-giving ways to put back what stress takes out, including exercise, reframing the way we think about stress, sleeping, playing, connecting with our crew, listening to music, or meditating. The challenge then, becomes finding ways or opportunities to become our own priority from time to time. Life opens up when we love ourselves as much as we love the ones close to us.

[irp posts=”1810″ name=”How to Be Mindfully Self-ish – And Why It’s SO Important.”]

17 Comments

Alex Diaz

Do you have the name of the research that looked at how amygdala responded to stress and illustrations to the shrinkage of branches?

Reply
Andrea

quite understandable and pretty informative…..like the article,because I’ve been also suffering from stress…keep sharing more article about stress….Thank you for your lovely article .

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Colin Stone, Relaxation Therapist

And so much of what we stress about is imagined in our mind. The mind is such an awesome resource, and our imagination is best used to rehearse positive outcomes. Why waste our power on negative thinking? Ten minutes a day in mental rehearsal (how might today turn out if everything goes great?) can give us such a huge boost – without drugs! Try this for just three days in a row and see what happens!

Reply
Barb

What I love about the viewpoints of these articles is the positive slant on things. Many of us have -including me -come from a very dysfunctional and psyche damaging environment leaving us with a constant “flight or fight” reaction to most things. The exciting and promising part of the brain is in its plasticity and ability to alter pathways to a brain able to heal and cope better. It’s not an easy task and I wholeheartedly embrace the self love ideology towards oneself to offset situations that aren’t easily changed. A 10 minute break at a park or an outdoor patio gives us that often overlooked but oh so necessary recharge. Today -I’m getting my hair done and going for a iced lime slushy drink at my fave diner. Remember to be good to you??

Reply
Leonor

I also meant to ask about voice decibel levels A co-worker who is at the front desk (my office is next to it) literally screeches at the top of her lungs day in and day out. how does that affect brain and body function?

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Leonor

work stress, bullying at the job by co-workers….etc. how does that affect a person’s brain and body?

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Michelle

Great Article! We forget in the intensity of stress that little things can help us feel better and making deliberate steps to put them in place is sometimes needed. Thanks for keeping these coming – there’s always something for everyone. I look forward to my Friday in-box!

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Robert Hammel (The Unhappy Psychologist)

“Stress and modern living often tend to come as a bundle”

Absolutely! Stress & emotional reactions are an integral part of our being human. We stress, therefore we are. Stress means we’re alive!

Like the article notes though. It’s how we interpret and manage the stress that’s most important. Like the Godfather of stress Hans Selye said decades ago:

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”.

Thanks for the great article.

Reply
Debbie

Would like to have heard of some more natural ways to reduce stress other than medication. Those areas should always be introduced first. Medication should always be a last resort.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Debbie there are a number of articles on the site that talk about the natural ways to reduce stress. The scope of this article was this piece of research that explored the effects of stress on the brain. As part of that research, they looked at the effect of a particular medication on those changes in the brain but as the article points out, there are other considerations in relying on medication to turn around the effects of stress on the brain. At the bottom of the article is a suggested article, ‘How to be Mindfully Selfish and why It’s So Important’. This article discusses medication-free ways to manage stress.

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Monique

Just in time before my first psychotherapy appointment on Monday. Thank you Karen, this is most helpful.
I was always convinced that stress and depression are connected, and if the biggest stressors were removed, the depression would not flare up.
Despite my depression being there constantly, the absolute lowness of spirits only becomes apparent if there are too many stressful episodes happening at the same time, or so close together that I cannot deal with them simultaneously.
Could it be that just one simple chemical was able to restore the balance?
If so, it would be marvellous – I hate the idea of antidepressants and how they alter personality.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Monique. I’m pleased the article found it’s way to you when it did. Stress can certainly feed into depression. There is definitely a link there. A lot of research is looking at depression as being caused by systemic inflammation, which stress can contribute to. Here is an article that explains that https://www.heysigmund.com/new-research-will-change-way-think-depression/. This is why lifestyle factors, such as exercise, eating the right food to support brain health, reducing stress, sleep, sunlight, social connection, meditation etc are all important for mental health and keeping the vital neurochemicals at healthy levels. Even doing these things though, sometimes depression can happen, so there is still a lot we need to learn about the causes. There is a lot of work happening in the area, which is great news. Hopefully some answers and a reliable, effective way to treat depression aren’t too far away.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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