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How Stress Affects The Brain

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How stress affects your brain – Madhumita Murgia

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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.

The Research What They Did

Researchers collected information from healthy participants about any stressful life events theyd been through, such as deaths of loved ones, divorce, unemployment, financial losses, relocations, serious illnesses or accidents.

Genetic analyses were also carried out, as well as scans of the subjects hippocampi.

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It Is Important To Find Ways To Reduce Stress

Also, 2,018 participants agreed to undergoMRI scans, so that the researchers could measure their brain volumes. This allowed the researchers to confirm that people with high cortisol levels also tended to have lower total brain volumes.

Those in the high-cortisol group had an average total cerebral brain volume of 88.5 percent of total cranial volume versus 88.7 percent of total cranial volume in people with regular cortisol levels.

As for low cortisol levels, the researchers found no links at all between this and a persons memory or their brain volume.

Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show, says Dr. Echouffo-Tcheugui.

o its important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed.

Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui

Its important for physicians to counsel all people with higher cortisol levels, he adds. Still, the researchers admit that their study does have some limitations such as the fact that they only measured the participants blood cortisol levels once, which may not be representative of their long-term exposure to this hormone.

Models Of Stress And The Immune System

Overcoming Stress and Adrenal Fatigue

seminal findings suggested that stress globally suppressed the immune system and provided the first model for how stress and immunity are related. This model has recently been challenged by views that relations between stress and the immune system should be adaptive, at least within the context of fight-or-flight stressors, and an even newer focus on the balance between cellular and humoral immunity. The present meta-analytic results support three of these models. Depending on the time frame, stressors triggered adaptive upregulation of natural immunity and suppression of specific immunity , cytokine shift , or global immunosuppression .

Increasing stressor chronicity also impacted the type of parameter in which changes were seen. Compared with the natural immune system, the specific immune system is time and energy intensive and as such is expected to be invoked only when circumstances persist for a longer period of time. Affected immune domainsnatural versus specificwere consistent with the duration of the stressorsacute versus chronic. Furthermore, changing immune responses via redistribution of cells can happen much faster than changes via the function of cells. The time frames of the stressor and the immune domain were also consistent acute stress affected primarily enumerative measures, whereas stressors of longer duration affected primarily functional measures.

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Models Of Stress The Immune System And Health

Conceptualizations of the nature of the relationship between stress and the immune system have changed over time. finding of thymic involution led to an initial model in which stress is broadly immunosuppressive. Early human studies supported this model, reporting that chronic forms of stress were accompanied by reduced natural killer cell cytotoxicity, suppressed lymphocyte proliferative responses, and blunted humoral responses to immunization . Diminished immune responses of this nature were assumed to be responsible for the heightened incidence of infectious and neoplastic diseases found among chronically stressed individuals .

Although the global immunosuppression model enjoyed long popularity and continues to be influential, the broad decreases in immune function it predicts would not have been evolutionarily adaptive in life-threatening circumstances.

Powerful Ways To Take Control Of Your Stress

  • Regular exercise reduces the overall activation of our amygdala and sympathetic nervous systemthe parts of our brain and body that generate the stress response. Exercise also stimulates chemicals in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factors which help new brain cells to grow and develop a process called “neurogenesis”. Studies suggest that just ten weeks of regular exercise is enough to significantly improve your mental wellbeing.
  • Regular meditation decreases the size of the amygdala and increases grey matter density in the prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for concentration, decision making, judgement, and social interaction. Regular meditation is also associated with changes to the hippocampus and the cingulate cortex . Interestingly, research suggests that just eight weeks of regular meditation practice is enough to produce similar brain changes to those seen in people who’ve been meditating most of their lives!
  • Regular elicitation of the relaxation response intentionally slowing our breathing, heart rate and reducing our blood pressure on a regular basis has been found to change the expression of our genes in a way which makes us more resilient to stress and anxiety.

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Stress In The Classroom

Our modern life has liberated most of us from facing life-threatening situations on a daily basis. We have, however, replaced these threats with events that we perceive, or react to with the same high levels of cortisol response. Exams, social situations, performance reviews, and calls into the bosss office have replaced the evasion of predators as the main activators of our biological stress system.

In the classroom, any positive priming effects of stress on learning may be even harder to observe There is no guarantee that any positive effects of stress on learning will outweigh the negative cost of too much stress on our bodies.

Every time stress hormones increase, the brain senses the change with a cadre of receptors that detect cortisol and other stress-related hormones. Interestingly enough, these receptors, which are found throughout the brain, are concentrated the highest in the hippocampus, a brain area involved in memory formation and spatial awareness. This makes theoretical sense when we think of stress as a response to a threat against our lives, such as a predator. After surviving, the slower cortisol response primes the memory circuits in the brain to help you remember where you were and what the environmental situations were surrounding the attack. Remembering this type of information helps you avoid a similar situation in the future.

Stress And The Brain Function Complications

How Stress Affects the Brain

For a long time, researchers suggested that hormones have receptors just in the peripheral tissues and do not gain access to the central nervous system . However, observations have demonstrated the effect of anti-inflammatory drugs on behavioral and cognitive disorders and the phenomenon called Steroid psychosis . In the early sixties, neuropeptides were recognized as compounds devoid of effects on the peripheral endocrine system. However, it was determined that hormones are able to elicit biological effects on different parts of the CNS and play an important role in behavior and cognition . In 1968, McEven suggested for the first time that the brain of rodents is capable of responding to glucocorticoid . This hypothesis that stress can cause functional changes in the CNS was then accepted . From that time on, two types of corticotropic receptors were recognized . It was determined that the affinity of glucocorticosteroid receptors to cortisol and corticosterone was about one tenth of that of mineralocorticoids . The hippocampus area has both types of receptors, while other points of the brain have only glucocorticosteroid receptors .

Destructive effects of stress of CNS function

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Natural Ways To Decrease The Neurological Effects Of Stress On The Brain

The neurological effects of stress on the brain can be devastating. Stress can impair neuroplasticity as well as cause or exacerbate diseases throughout the entire body and especially in the brain. If youre constantly stressed, feel tense, or find yourself having restless nights, stress may be a factor.

Here are 11 ways you can reverse the negative impact of stress on your health:

  • Recognize the stressors in your life

  • Re-evaluate the life you live

  • Commit to making the necessary changes

  • Exercise regularly

  • How Stress Affects Your Brain

    2 Minute Read

    For most people, stress is an everyday occurrence. Dealing with finances, hectic work schedules, childcare, and countless other responsibilities can make you feel like your life is spiraling out of control. Yet, some people can handle it well and find ways to manage, while for others, stress begins to take its toll. And not just physically, but where youd least expect it your brain. The following information will help you gain a better understanding for how stress affects your brain and ways to improve how you deal with stress in the future.

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    You Can Change How You React

  • Stress is a fact of life. You cant change it, but you can change how you react to stress. Here are three ways you can practice training your body to reset its stress response:
  • Recognize it
  • The first part, and often hardest part of dealing with stress is simply recognizing consciously that its there. Often, we unconsciously run from stress before we even have a chance to deal with it, often in less than healthy ways. But instead of running away or avoiding it, what about just looking at it? By stopping and just recognizing oh, this is stressful can go a long way towards diffusing the situation.

  • Feel the body
  • When we feel stress, we often carry it in our bodies. If you could do a mental inventory the moment youre under stress, youre likely to notice tense, raised shoulders, a tight belly and jaw, or various aches and pains. Everyone is different, and stress presents differently for everyone. But paying attention to where you actually physically feel stress in the body has a tendency to help release it.

  • Change your mindset
  • Chronic Stress Increases Disease And Death

    Neglect

    Chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. are continuously released when youre living a stressful life. The constant release impairs your ability to make new memories. Additionally, chronic stress weakens your immune systems and can cause weight gain as well as high blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar.

    The reason so many of the bodys internal systems are affected by stress is that the stress response that occurs in the brain gets communicated to the rest of the body. The vagus nerve is responsible for passing on information, connecting the brain to the rest of the body. Your vagus nerve runs from your brain, down your face, through your chest, and into your abdomen. Along the way, it influences every organ system. So when youre stressed or facing danger, that information travels instantly from the brain to the rest of the body.

    To paraphrase Hans Selye, the first scientist to identify stress as a cause of illness, Its not the stress that kills you, its your reaction to it.

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    What Is The Biology Behind Stress

    Stress is a biological response to things that happen to you. If you perceive a situation as stressful, the hypothalamus region of your brain begins the stress response. It starts by sending a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland then sends a message to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are found on top of your kidneys. These glands then release the stress hormone cortisol.

    During the stress response, your breathing and heart rate increase and your blood pressure goes up. With the help of cortisol, your liver will break down molecules and release more sugar into the blood. An increase in blood sugar level provides more energy for the body. This is critical for the fight or flight response. The increase in energy helps you to escape from or deal with a stressful situation. It also helps the body to return to a normal state afterward.

    Did you know?

    During the stress response, some of your other body systems are less active. This includes your immune system and your digestive system. This is why you dont feel hungry during a stressful situation.

    It is possible for people to adapt to moderate levels of stress over time. If you experience a stressful event over and over, the prefrontal cortex, or the command centre of the brain, recognizes the stressor and tells your hypothalamus that stress response is meant to be short-lived. Experiencing repeated or long-term stress means that cortisol levels in the body stay high.

    Alterations In Behaviors Induced By Ms

    The disruption of the relationship between a child and a caregiver is one of the most sensitive factors impacting lifelong mental health , leading to transdiagnostic features common in many psychological disorders . Numerous reports have revealed alterations in the behavior of offspring exposed to MS. Here, several behavioral aspects observed in MS animal models will be summarized.

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    Is All Stress Created Equal

    While the effect of stress on the brain is well documented, it’s less clear exactly what type of stress will prove damaging and raise the risk of memory problems later in life. Do brain problems occur when you are under a small amount of stress or only when you experience long-term stress?

    “That’s a tough question, because stress is a broad term that is used to describe a lot of different things,” says Dr. Ressler. The stress you might experience before you take a test is likely very different from the stress of being involved in a car accident or from a prolonged illness. “Certainly, more stress is likely worse, and long-term stress is generally worse than short-term stress,” says Dr. Ressler.

    But there are additional factors that make stress more harmful, he says. In particular:

    Mood Cognition And Behaviour

    How stress affects your brain

    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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    Depression And Anxiety Disorders

    Vulnerability to emotional disorders including depression and anxiety-like behaviors derives from stressful events during early life. Adverse experiences in early life, especially interference with motherpup relationships, have been associated with serious psychiatric diseases in adulthood . As close contact with the mother is very crucial, MS in early life leads to a significant reaction of protest and despair in the pups and induces the repeated stimulation by stress mediators such as glucocorticoids and catecholamines. These disturbances of physiological and hormonal alterations result not only in unipolar and bipolar depression, but also in anxiety disorders . Previous human studies have indicated that childhood adversity including childhood abuse and neglect leads to the prolonged and disrupted mobilization of the stress response, resulting in major depression and anxiety disorders . These phenomena respond to anhedonic behavior and deterioration of dopaminergic reward pathways in adult animals exposed to MS in early life. MS in early life induces hyperactivity of the HPA axis that is long-lasting, even in adulthood . In fact, many studies of repeated MS during the first two weeks in rodents caused depression and anxiety-like behaviors in adulthood . In these studies, the locomotor activity and rearing behaviors decreased, while the immobility during a forced swim test and the time spent in the closed arms of an elevated plus maze increased.

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