Tuesday 19 August 2014

How chronic stress rewires your brain and creates mood disorders

Mike Bundrant

The medical is big on theorizing about your chemicals and adding more into the mix. Traditionally trained doctors, however, give little thought into what causes deficiencies in the first place, especially when those causes are psychological.

This is why research into the effects of chronic stress is so important. The effects of psychological stress move beyond the mental, right into your brain chemistry. The following study demonstrates specifically how this happens.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley found that those who suffer from chronic stress experience long-term changes in their brain that makes them susceptible to mood disorders and high anxiety.

Associate professor of integrative biology Daniela Kaufer and a team of researchers have studied the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain that governs emotion and memory. They found that chronic stress causes the brain to generate fewer neurons and more myelin-producing cells than normal. This results in more white matter in certain areas of the brain, disrupting the balance and timing of communication within the brain.

The study was published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Kaufer believes that it may be possible that prolonged stress may develop a stronger connection between the hippocampus and the area of the brain responsible for a person's fight or flight response, while weakening the hippocampus' connection with the prefrontal cortex, which moderates those responses.

This would result in quicker fear responses, as well as a reduced ability to shut down those responses. Kaufer is currently involved in a study to test this hypothesis.

Kaufer's lab also discovered that chronic stress affects the development of stem cells located in the hippocampus. Ordinarily, these cells are believed to only develop into a type of glial cell known as an astrocyte. Under the effects of chronic stress, however, these cells matured into a different type of glial cell called an oligodendrocyte, which produces myelin.

These cells also help form synapses. Kaufer believes that because fewer neurons are formed under chronic stress, this could explain why it has such an effect on memory and learning. She is now conducting experiments to see if early-life stress reduces a person's resilience later in their life.

Five ways we heap stress upon ourselves

Chronic, negative stress can be eliminated, however, we tend to cling to it in various ways. Here are five of them.

1. Refusing to exercise

Physical exercise is among the most effective ways to reduce stress. And it may be essential. You'd be hard-pressed to find any health authority, conventional or alternative, who doesn't promote regular exercise to reduce stress and balance the mind and body.

Yet, we are a nation of couch potatoes. The Center for Disease Control estimates that 80% of Americans do not get the recommended amount of physical exercise.

2. Neglecting to treat PTSD

Chronic stress that comes from unresolved physical, sexual and emotional trauma can be devastating. Fortunately, it is one of the most treatable mental health issues. Therapeutic use of modalities such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) and cognitive behavioral approaches have a very high success rate in eliminating the flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares and chronic restimulation of past trauma.

It's understandable that some people fear the treatment, but also very unfortunate that more people don't take advantage of these options. If you have emotional trauma in your past, isn't it time to deal with it and let go? You absolutely can, with help.

3. Catastrophic over-commitment to busy-ness

To say that people keep themselves busy these days is an understatement. In fact, being busier than you can handle is almost a status symbol. If you can say, "Oh I am so busy that I can barely think straight" it must mean that you are not a loser.

When you can't say no to work, family and community opportunities, you tend to over do it and live with more on your plate that you can possibly accomplish. This adds up to stress.

4. Horrific nutrition

The standard Western diet is full of sugar, artificial chemicals, caffeine, gluten, candida-promoting foods, alcohol, bad fats and empty calories that make it impossible for your body to balance itself. When your standard fare is junk, you will end up mentally and emotionally depleted and more stressed than you would be otherwise.

Water is an essential part of nutrition as well. And most people don't get enough. The Panhandle Health District suggests that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated and that lack of water is the #1 trigger of daytime fatigue.

5. Psychological attachments and self-sabotage

This is the granddaddy of them all, in my opinion. Self-sabotage will compel you to say yes when you mean no, eat and drink junk that makes you feel bad, stay up late when you need to get up early, waste time, work too much and hang around people who tend to control, reject or deprive you.

Self-sabotage draws you toward the negativity in life as if you belonged there. Amazingly, self-sabotage usually feels passive. In other words, it happens on autopilot, as if it were happening to you and not a product of your own decisions (until you understand how it works).
Chronic stress is the inevitable result.

It's possible to live a simple, calm life that is relatively free of chronic, negative stress. Lack of exercise, PTSD, over-committing, bad nutrition and self-sabotage will prevent this from happening. From the results of the above study, it is apparently causing brain damage.


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