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?

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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!

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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.

Reply

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Faces so often say so more than our words ever could. Even more than words and behaviour, faces tell the story of where we (and our nervous systems) are right now. Receive their joyful faces and their brave faces. Their scared faces and their sad faces. When their words are spicy and big their behaviour is bigger, receive their faces. Their faces won’t lie. And neither do ours. By receiving their faces it will open the way to show them, ‘I see you. I feel you. I’m with you.’♥️
Parenting was never meant to be about perfection. Neither was growing up. The messy times are so often where the growth happens - theirs and ours - but this can only happen if we can be with ourselves through the mess, with an open heart and an open mind. But this can be so hard some days! 

Let’s start by shoving the idea of perfect parenting out the door and let’s do that with full force. Perfection. Ugh. Let’s not do that to ourselves and let’s not do that to our young loves. It’s okay for them to see our imperfections, and it’s okay for them to lay theirs bare in front of us. We won’t break them if we yell sometimes. They will learn from our mistakes, and we will learn from theirs.♥️
If the feelings that send them ‘small’ don’t feel safe or supported, the ‘big’ of anger will step in. This doesn’t mean they aren’t actually safe or supported - it’s about what the brain perceives. 

Let them see that you can handle them in all their feelings. Breathe and be with - through their tears, or confusion, or lostness. Just let their feelings come, and let them be. Feelings heal when they’re felt. Big feelings don’t hurt children. What hurts is being alone in the feelings. Your strong, loving presence, your willingness to be with without needing them to be different, and certainty that they’ll get through this will hold them steady through the storm. If they don’t want you near them, that’s okay too. Let them know you’re they’re if they need.♥️
Brains love keeping us alive. They adore it actually. Their most important job is to keep us safe. This is above behaviour, relationships, and learning - except as these relate to safety. 

Safety isn’t about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. Unless a brain feels safe, it won’t be as able to learn, connect, regulate, make good decisions, think through consequences. 

Young brains (all brains actually) feel safest when they feel connected to, and cared about by, their important adults.  This means that for us to have any influence on our kids and teens, we first need to make sure they feel safe and connected to us. 

This goes for any adult who wants to lead, guide or teach a young person - parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches. Children or teens can only learn from us if they feel connected to us. They’re no different to us. If we feel as though someone is angry or indifferent with us we’re more focused on that, and what needs to happen to avoid humiliation or judgement, or how to feel loved and connected again, than anything else. 

We won’t have influence if we don’t have connection. Connection let’s us do our job - whether that’s the job of parenting, teaching - anything. It helps the brain feel safe, so it will then be free to learn.♥️
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#parenting #parentingforward #parentingtips #mindfulparenting
The stories we tell ourselves influence how we feel and what we do. This happens to all of us. These stories can be influenced by our mood, history, stress - so many things that are outside of what’s actually happening. 

When our children are in distress, this will start to create distress in us. The idea of this is to mobilise us to protect, but when that distress happens in the absence of a ‘real’ threat, it can throw us into fight or flight. This can influence the story we tell ourselves. This is really normal.

Whenever you can, pause, and be open to a different story. It won’t necessarily make the behaviour okay, but it will make it easier to give your child or teen what they need in that moment - an anchor - a strong, steady, loving presence to guide them back to calm. 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then you can have the conversations that will grow them: what happened, what can you do differently, what can I do differently that would help?

The truth is that they are no different to us. In that moment they don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel seen, safe, and heard.♥️
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#parenting #parenthood #mindfulparenting

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