The Mind-Blowing Effects of Stress on Your Brain

Have you ever been so stressed out that you want to pull your hair out one by one, stick needles in your eyeballs, and wanted everything and everyone to just go away?

What if you felt this way because your life was about to be decided for you, standing outside of a courtroom waiting for a custody battled decision to finally be made? What if that situation that had gone on for years, caused you to despise your ex-husband who is clearly mis-diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder?

This was me in the summer of 2012 and if you’ve ever felt that type of stress, or have ever experienced an incidence similar, you have my deepest sympathies because I would not wish that fate on my worst enemy, not even my ex-husband, now.

The effects of your experiences, especially stress on the human body have been researched and tested now for decades, however what are the implications of this environmental factor on our neurodevelopment?

What actually happens in our brain while going through stressful experiences? How are neurons in our brain changing and regenerating?

Research on the effects of experience on brain development has progressed beyond simply assessing general sensory deprivation or enrichment, which clearly has major effects on the development and maintenance of neural circuits (Pinel, 2014). Because of these neurological investigations we now know that there are two important ideas on brain development including neuro-placticity and neurogenesis, which generally has changed the way neuroscientists think about the human brain altogether.

These new findings have consequently made the role of experience in neurodevelopment not just pathological, but as patterns of neural activity stages within the growth of all animals. This fine-tuning constitutes the critical, final phase of normal development leading us to believe that experience influences genes and gene expression, and that neurotransmitters influence brain development (Daubert & Condron, 2010).

What does this new evidence mean when we are having an enriching or stressful experience?

Bio-psychologists believe that outside influences affect adult neurogenesis, which is rather mind-blowing, pun intended. Neurogenesis is the growth of new neurons which help neuro-mechanisms allowing for adjustments in the body system to get to a state of arousal (e.g., increased heart rate, deactivation of nonessential systems, and the activation of threat-relevant memories). This process is appropriate for the maintenance of a person’s well-being in the face of threat, and for a subsequent return to homeostases once the threat cue is terminated (Pinel, 2014).

Stress, or what constitutes adverse circumstances, in the context of many neurodevelopment studies, refers to circumstances appraised as threatening and/or as a burden to coping mechanisms. These mechanisms are known collectively as the stress response system or the stress-emotion system (Kindsvatter & Geroski, 2014). While going through a stressful or threatening experience animal studies have yielded results that suggest early life emphasis has lasting effects specifically on the development of the stress response systems of the brain. In humans, the effects of their experiences in adulthood can lead to the regeneration and reorganization of sensory and motor cortical maps (Pinel, 2014).

However, traumatic stress has a much wider range of effects on the brain, and the areas involved in these responses include the amygdala, hippocampus, and medial prefrontal cortex (Bremner, 2006). Similarly, the brain regions that are related to stress disorders include the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and amygdala. These regions generate endocrine stress responses, including activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, with plastic changes at the neuronal intracellular level (Holmer, 2014). Environmental stress also activates the limbic HPA system, which leads to an increase in cortisol secretion and neurobiological changes in which neurohormonal systems (including glucocorticoids and norepinephrine) act on brain areas to modulate symptoms (Bremner, 2006).

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder exhibited as a persistent pattern of psychological distress occurs in people that follow a period of exposure to extreme stress. For example, a natural disaster, serious accident, terrorist incident, sudden death of a loved one, war, violent personal assault such as rape, or other life-threatening events (Pinel, 2014). Studies have shown that stress is associated with changes in the structure of the hippocampus, an area of the brain that plays a critical role in learning and memory, and people with PTSD present a wide range of memory problems (Bremner, 2006).

According to Dr. Pavurluri, a professor from the University of Illinois in Chicago, and speaker at the UC Davis Mind Institute, people often mistake the symptoms of unmanaged stress. Many children may be reprimanded by teachers or parents for actions that are actually stress reactions, rather than intentional behavior. Understanding and decoding the neurological changes and hormonal impact that happens due to these environmental factors may be the key in having a successful diagnosis and treatment.

What should we do if we find ourselves in a stressful situation to help maintain and sustain normal ranges of value in our brain?

Pavuluri states that by using a neuroscience informed intervention that translates emotional experiences into language which includes talking or writing, alters the way it is represented and understood in our brain, which gets the prefrontal cortex more involved. While undergoing mild stress, dopamine can over-flood the brain causing stress symptoms that affect memory, attention, sleep deprivation, anxiety and other symptoms affecting our learning.

Doctor Pavurluri refers to the therapeutic results of expression with words, resulting in the appropriate amount of dopamine in the brain, similar to gas filling our tank just enough to have our bodies run properly.

Therapeutic writing, exploring narratives and life stories through talking, actively thinking through problems, expressing emotive thoughts, and finding new stories to tell have all been found to reap subsequent benefits for the relief of stress (Cooper, 2012).

Brain imaging and new bio-psychological research now tells us that neurologically, the executive functions in the pre-frontal cortex, the limbic system, the amygdala, mammilary body, hippocampus, fornix, cortex of the cingulate gyrus, septum, olfactory bulb and hypothalamus are all affected by our emotional states (Pinel, 2014).

By regulating our stress levels through expression, we are not only helping our immune system combat the susceptibility to infections, disease and other debilitating disorders, but we’re encouraging positive neuro-plasticity and neuro-genisis development within our brain, a process that we could all benefit from.

For more info and other great tips for dealing with stress GRAB MY BOOK: How to FIND Your Super Awesome Sassy Self: A Modern Woman’s Guide to Living A Less-Stressed Life!

References

A., Kindsvatter., & A., Geroski. (2014). The Impact of Early Life Stress on the Neurodevelopment of the Stress Response System. Journal of Counseling and Development, 92.

Bremmer, J. D., Cortisol response to a cognitive stress challenge on post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) related to childhood abuse. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 28.

Cooper, P. (2012). Can the use of writing lower negative thoughts in depressed adults? International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 19.

Daubert, E., & Condron, B. (2010). Serotonin: A regulator of neural morphology and circuitry. Trends in Neurosciences, 33.

Holmer, L. (2014). Cognitive function and post traumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience, 4.

Pavuluri, M. (2015). UC Davis Mind Institute Distinguished Lecture Series. Retrieved October 2015, from http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute/videos/video_dls.html

Pinel, J. (2014). Biopsychology. (A. Chow, Ed.) (9th ed.). New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc.

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