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.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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