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!

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.

Reply
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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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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