It has become a norm to hear ourselves talk with friends and family about how stressed we are and we might just go crazy! We EVEN know stress plays a role in heart diseases and such, but we are still lacking to grasp the extent to which the un-managed stress affects the emotional, cognitive, and physical aspects.
While the brain is the central organ for stress, it is also a miraculous machine which is good at adaptation. Our brain connections are remodeled by the amount of stress we take up, meaning it changes the ability to regulate anxiety, mood as well as to perform working memory along with the executive functioning. So, remember next time you are studying for an exam, don’t stress too much (as your memory retention might just decline).
However, what is crucial to understanding stress is that it not just involves the brain but the whole body and its interactions as well. In the Brain on Stress: How the social environment gets under the skin , McEwen focuses on explaining how stress reflects everyday life crisis that individuals go through, and including the pressure from daily life which then our brain and body responds to through the alteration of psychological systems. In the end, that same stress burden translates in the form of diseases. In particular, McEwen emphasizes that even though our brain has the capacity of plasticity, some damage caused by the extreme stressful life events cause a lack of reversibility which can be maladaptive.
The research further explains the finding of structural plasticity of the adult brain can be traced back to the 1960’s and that plasticity involves not only hippocampus hut other regions such as amygdala, prefrontal cortex, and nucleus accumbens. So, we all know that damage caused by chronic stress is sometimes reversible due to the plasticity induced in those regions, at least in the young adult population, which still does not constitute the damage caused by other events. Regardless, overstimulation caused by seizure and similar occurrences can cause irreversible damage but they are only now gaining skills of ‘improving’ those damages through top-down interventions.
While physical seizures and such play a role in brain damage, there have been studies demonstrating the effects of early – life adversity in kids showing up as cognitive and mental deficits later in their lives. This specific finding emphasizes the importance of healthy early life experience to not just have a healthy body but a healthy brain as well over the course of your life. The claim that early – life events related to maternal care in animals along with parental care plays a major role in later physical and mental health has been supported by the animal models. The different studies have all come to a conclusion that “prenatal stress impairs hippocampal development in rats as does stress in adolescence.”
Additionally, there are studies on abuse which includes physical and emotional aspects and how abuse at home seems to involve an immature amygdala. Then, there are other factors affecting mental health associated with the low socioeconomic status which has also been associated with the decreased hippocampal volume. Nevertheless, the question we run into is whether or not the effects of stress, especially the ones biologically embedded and associated with the environment, can be remediated..? And the answer is rather complicated…
While a childhood that is less traumatic, preferred, it is rather an inevitable situation for many. One of the interventions McEwen talks about is a powerful top-down therapy which is an activity that involves activation of integrated nervous system activity and can improve prefrontal and parietal cortex blood flow which can at the end also improve the executive functioning.
I know, I know you’re tired of scientific findings by now, we have understood enough about chronic stress and its effects but this is EXCITING!!!
This 2012 article really emphasized the neurobiological basis of toxic stress and how adverse early-life experiences can be directly threatening for your brain. SO… you know what that means for all of us, but especially all of us who are in college. IF graduate school is even an option at all, stressing out will not help because it will start affecting your brain negatively. So take it easy because this whatever you stress on isn’t permanent, but the damage it’ll cause to your brain WILL BE.
Charil, A., Laplante, D. P., Vaillancourt, C., & King, S. (2010). Prenatal stress and brain development. Brain research reviews, 65(1), 56-79.
McEwen, B. S. (2012). Brain on stress: how the social environment gets under the skin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(Supplement 2), 17180-17185.
Sobrinho, L. G. (2003). Prolactin, psychological stress and environment in humans: adaptation and maladaptation. Pituitary, 6(1), 35-39.