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

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
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
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
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!

Reply
Leonor

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

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?

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
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
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 .

Reply
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

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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