Even Superheros Sometimes Need Help
Even though our bodies have these super stressresponse systems, humans are best at dealing with stress when they have a little help. This help is called social support, which refers to the ways that other people can help us feel safe, loved, and cared for . Your friends and family may provide social support by hugging you when you are sad or scared, hanging out with you when you feel lonely, or celebrating with you when you are excited. We especially need social support when we are very young. Remember earlier when we mentioned that the amygdala shares a special connection with the prefrontal cortex? This connection does not mature until you are a teenager therefore, infants and children rely on their parents to help them calm down.
- Figure 2 – This study compared the brains of children and teenagers while they viewed emotional faces.
- When looking at negative emotional faces you can see that the childrens amygdala activity was decreased when their mothers were present. This tells us that the moms were buffering stressresponse systems in the children by providing social support. The teenagers amygdala activity increased when they viewed the emotional faces even though their mothers were present.
Stress Shrinks The Brain
While the overall volume of the brain tends to remain about the same, it has been found that chronic stress in otherwise healthy individuals can cause areas of the brain associated with emotions, metabolism, and memory to shrink. Chronic stress also made people more likely to experience brain shrinkage when exposed to intense stressors. This means that people under constant stress may find it harder to deal with future stress.
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Stress affects your digestive tract. The gastrointestinal tract is filled with nerve endings and immune cells, all of which are affected by stress hormones, says Dr. Dossett. As a result, stress can cause acid reflux as well as exacerbate symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease. Not to mention create butterflies in your stomach.
Stress messes with your immune system. A number of studies shows that stress lowers immunity, which may be why youre likely to come down with a cold after a crunch time at school or work right on the first day of your vacation. Patients with autoimmune disorders often say they get flare-ups during or after stressful events, or tell me that their condition began after a particularly stressful event, says Dossett.
Stress can muddle your brain. Brain scans of people with post-traumatic stress disorder show more activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear and emotion, says Haythe. But even everyday kinds of stress can affect how the brain processes information.
We see actual structural, functional, and connectivity-related brain changes in people who are under chronic stress, adds Gupta. All of these can affect cognition and attention, which is why you may find it hard to focus or learn new things when you are stressed.
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The Stress Hormone Affects Memory
In their study, the researchers worked with participants with an average age of 49 and no diagnosis of dementia.
At baseline, the investigators asked each participant to undergo a psychological exam. They also assessed each participants memory and thinking abilities. For the purpose of the study, they assessed these abilities again after an average period of 8 years.
Furthermore, at the beginning of the study, all the volunteers provided blood samples. The team collected them in the morning, after an appropriate fasting period, so that the blood test results would be accurate.
Specifically, the researchers were interested in measuring the participants levels of blood cortisol, which is a hormone released chiefly in response to stress. After assessing cortisol levels, the investigators divided the participants into groups according to their results.
They categorized participants as having high, middle, or low levels of cortisol, where middle levels corresponded to the normal cortisol level range of 10.815.8 micrograms per deciliter.
The researchers found that people with high levels of blood cortisol had much poorer memory when compared with peers with normal cortisol levels. Importantly, impaired memory was present in these individuals even before obvious symptoms of memory loss set in.
These results remained consistent even after the investigators had adjusted for relevant modifying factors, such as age, sex, smoking habit, and body mass index .
How Does Stress Affect The Brain And Nerves
Stress is something that affects different people in different ways, partly because we all deal with stress differently, partly because a lot of the signs of stress build up over time and we dont necessarily notice them. Sometimes the first time we pay attention to stress is when it manifests in something major like a stroke or a heart attack.
Ideally, you should be taking steps to reduce the effect of stress before something nasty like that happens.
So what signals should you be looking out for?
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Key Role Of Excitatory Amino Acids
An unregulated overflow of glutamate appears to play a role in depressive-like behavior in animal models in which shrinkage of dendrites in the hippocampus and suppression of neurogenesis occurs that can be prevented by upregulation of the metabotrophic glutamate receptor, mGlu2, by agents such as acetyl-L-carnitine as well as histone deacetylase inhibitors, which act in a few days, and by selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors which act more slowly.51,52 Chronic stress causes dendritic shrinkage not only in CA3 and dentate gyrus neurons of hippocampus but also in medial amygdala and mPFC, while dendrites in BlA and orbitofrontal cortex expand with chronic stress.9,17,18,20,24,53
Unregulated glutamate overflow is also implicated in aging and dementia. During aging in the rat, treatment with riluzole, which is known to retard glutamate release and promote glutamate reuptake by astrocytes, retards aging in the hippocampus as measured by preservation of spatial memory and thin spines that are found in young hippocampal neurons.54 Moreover, assessing gene expression changes associated with aging in rodents using RNA-sequencing , riluzole prevented many of the hippocampal age-related gene expression changes. Moreover, a comparison of the effects of riluzole in rats against human AD data sets revealed that many of the gene changes in Alzheimer’s Disease are reversed by riluzole.55
Were Wired For Stress
The good news is that stress is completely natural and expected, and our bodies and brains have evolved accordingly to deal with threats.
For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, stress might have meant an immediate threat to ones survival happening upon a wild animal or stepping on a poisonous snake, for example causing the brain to kick the body into high gear to meet that threat.
Upon encountering a stressor, this ancient humans brain would have immediately engaged the adrenal and autonomic nervous systems, which release adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which quickly floods the body and prepares it to do what it needs to do to survive.
Specifically, heres how the brain and body respond:
You may have heard this referred to as the fight or flight response. It means that were highly adapted to deal with acute stress because stress management is literally wired into our DNA. Ostensibly, thats a very good thingafter all, here we all are, so it seems it worked out for our ancestors fairly well.
So whats the problem?
While our brains havent really changed much in the last 40-50 thousand years , our lifestyles have changed drastically. Threats from wild animals have become threats of deadlines, traffic, bills, family conflict, and more. These modern stresses arent actually going to eat you alive but your brain doesnt understand that.
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How To Calm Down: Exercise
While more research is needed, experts believe that certain healthy activities could offset the stress response and minimize neural damage. Simple solutions such as physical exercise could potentially prevent or reduce elevations in stress hormones, thereby reducing harm to the brain, says Chetty. For example, 30 minutes a day of even just gentle walking can help improve mood and lower stress, says the NIMH.
Stress Kills Brain Cells
It has been suggested by researchers that chronic stress can even kill new neurons in the brains hippocampus. The hippocampus is one of only two locations where neurons are produced. Despite the fact that the formation of new neurons does not seem to be affected, research shows that new neurons produced during periods of stress are more likely to die within a week.
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How Stress Affects Your Brain And How To Reverse It
When the fight-or-flight stress response was first hardwired into our ancestors’ brains, predators were a top concern.
But, times have changed.
“I’ve been sitting at the same desk for six months now, and there’s just not been a lot of predators,” quipped Stanford bioengineer Russ Altman, MD, PhD, as he welcomed his guest, neurobiologist Andrew Huberman, PhD, to a show on stress and the brain for Stanford Engineering’s podcast series, the “Future of Everything.”
Altman’s joke highlights an important point. The things that stress humans out have changed dramatically over the years, however the human stress response has remained largely the same.
Because of this, Huberman explained, whether you’re facing an approaching tiger or an alarming text, the neurons in your brainstem initiate identical cascades of reactions that dump epinephrine, acetylcholine and other chemicals into your body. This chemical dump causes rapid heart rate and breathing, dilated pupils and other body responses, all subconsciously and all in about 500 milliseconds.
Is stress in 2020 worse than ever, or does it just feel that way? Stanford neurobiologist Andrew Huberman discusses stress-taming tips with the “Future of Everything” host Russ Altman.
Central Nervous And Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system is in charge of your fight or flight response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesnt go away, the response will continue.
Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
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Life Course And The Epigenetics Of Individual Differences
Gene-environment interactions are key to how the brain develops and changes with experience, and epigenetics now refers to the important role of the social and physical environment in shaping the brain and body over the lifecourse.68 Mechanistically, epigenetics refers to events above the genome that regulate expression of genetic information without altering the DNA sequence. Besides the CpG methylation described above, other mechanisms include histone modifications that repress or activate chromatin unfolding69 and the actions of non-coding RNA’s,70 as well as transposons and retrotransposons71 and RNA editing.72 Much of what is described earlier in this review involves epigenetic mechanisms at a cellular and molecular level. Now we turn to a more integrative view of epigenetics in the animal and human world that lead to trajectories of experience-dependent adaptation or maladaptation, which then will lead to a discussion of possible interventions.
Take Care Of Your Health
Stress is sometimes due to not whats going on around you, but internal stressors, such as depression or diabetes.
Get a thorough medical evaluation, said Dr. Santosh Kesari, a neurologist, neuro-oncologist, neuroscientist, and chair and professor of the department of translational neurosciences and neurotherapeutics at the John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence Saint Johns Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
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Mood Cognition And Behaviour
It is well established that chronic stress can lead to depression, which is a leading cause of disability worldwide. It is also a recurrent condition people who have experienced depression are at risk for future bouts of depression, particularly under stress.
There are many reasons for this, and they can be linked to changes in the brain. The reduced hippocampus that a persistent exposure to stress hormones and ongoing inflammation can cause is more commonly seen in depressed patients than in healthy people.
Chronic stress ultimately also changes the chemicals in the brain which modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin. Serotonin is important for mood regulation and wellbeing. In fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are used to restore the functional activity of serotonin in the brain in people with depression.
Sleep and circadian rhythm disruption is a common feature in many psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, play a key modulatory role in sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can therefore interfere with our sleep. The restoration of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms may therefore provide a treatment approach for these conditions.
Depression can have huge consequences. Our own work has demonstrated that depression impairs cognition in both non-emotional domains, such as planning and problem-solving, and emotional and social areas, such as creating attentional bias to negative information.
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But even short-term stress can have a profound impact on your heart if its bad enough. The condition cardiomyopathy, also known as broken-heart syndrome, is a weakening of the heart’s left ventricle that usually results from severe emotional or physical stress.
Although the condition is in general rare, 90 percent of cases are in women.
Cardiomyopathy can occur in very stressful situations, such as after a huge fight, the death of a child, or other major triggers, Dr. Haythe says. Patients come into the emergency room with severe chest pain and other symptoms of what we call acute heart failure syndrome, though their coronary arteries are clear. They can be very sick, but with treatment, most of the time, people recover.
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How Stress Affects The Brain
Stress, in the right context, is an incredibly helpful tool for humans. Its helped us to survive as long as we have. Stress is basically a reaction to any demand or challenge that is presented to your brain. Your brain triggers the release of a chemical called cortisol, which sets off the fight-or-flight response in your body. For those who havent heard of fight-or-flight, it increases your heart rate to get your muscles the blood they need, increases your focus, and releases adrenaline in your body to give you the extra edge you need in order to deal with the stressor. Ultimately, this response can help us survive dangerous situations or perform better in situations where performance is critical. However, when you are stressed out frequently and over long periods of time, it can have negative effects on your brain. Braincode Centers has a number of locations across northern Colorado, contact us today for questions and help with stress.
Adrenal Steroid Receptors In Hippocampus
Glucocorticoids produce effects in the brain both genomically and non-genomically via multiple sites and pathways, and they have biphasic effects in which the timing and the level of glucocorticoid response expression are critical.25,26 Glucocorticoid actions via the genome involve both direct interactions with GR elements and indirect actions via tethering to other transcription factors.27 Glucocorticoids also directly stimulate release of excitatory amino acids via membrane-associated receptors and they indirectly regulate both glutamate and GABA release via their ability to induce local synthesis of endocannabinoids.28 Glucocorticoids also translocate GR to mitochondria where they promote Ca++ sequestration and regulate mitochondrial gene expression these effects are biphasic and high glucocorticoid levels cause a failure of this mechanism and lead to increase free-radical formation.29
The level of expression of glucocorticoid receptors is very important. Genetically induced overexpression of GR in forebrain leads to increased ability of mood-related behaviors and yet also confers greater responsiveness to antidepressant drugs.30 Genetically induced underexpression of GR has the opposite effect.31 Likewise the increased CpG methylation within the GR promotor is associated with a sluggish HPA stress response and is associated with poor maternal care in rodents and early life abuse in human suicide victims.32,33
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Stress Shuts Down Digestion
Something else I found really interesting about Tanias discussion of how stress affects the body was the effect it has on our digestive system. Because our bodies want to use all of our available energy for fighting or fleeing, they stop other energy-spending processes like digestion. This can make us feel nauseous by stopping digestion of the food weve got in our bodies already, and sometimes our bodies even flush the food out with fluids, which turns into vomit.
So now we know why we often feel sick during or after high-stress situations. On the other end of the spectrum, eating well can actually positively impact how we cope with stress and therefore limit its impact.
How Stress Can Change Your Brain: An Animated Introduction
We hear the mantra of âself-careâ in ever-widening circles, a concept both derided and celebrated as a âmillennial obsession,â with the acknowledgmentâat least in this NPR think pieceâ that self-care was central to the philosophies of antiquity, from Aristotle to the Stoics.
In philosophy, self-care exists as a set of ethics. The reasons for this may often be couched in high-minded discussions of civics, sexual politics, and existential self-actualization. These days, doctors and researchers are making urgent appeals for our mental and physical health, and the science of stress is an unsurprisingly rich field of investigation at the moment.
Itâs hard to overstate the negative effects of stress on the body over time. Increased stress hormones have been linked in study after study to overeating and obesity, lowered immune response, drug use and addiction, memory impairment, heart disease, and many other debilitating and life-threatening conditions. âThe long-term activation of the stress-response system,â writes the Mayo Clinic, âand the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormonesâcan disrupt almost all your bodyâs processes.â
Conversely, stress increases the size of the amygdala, which activates fight-or-flight responses, which in turn increase the strain on our heart and blood vessels.
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