Stress: Some Bad News and Some Good News

In a recent NY Times article, Natalie Angier reviews recent research about how stress rewires our brains. “Brain is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop” (August 18, 2009 p. D2.)

When stress overcomes our normal coping mechanisms, those portions of our brains associated with executive decision-making and goal orientation shrivel, while other brain areas linked to habitual behavior seem to blossom. The stressed brain seems to shift into autopilot. Under stress we do customary things over and over instead of thinking our way out of the stress-inducing circumstances. Adding to our dilemma, we’re lousy at recognizing that our usual stress-coping mechanisms aren’t working.

The target organs of stress dance to the beat: blood pressure climbs and drops; the heart races and slows; the intestines constrict and relax. Overreacting to stress, the human brain extracts phantom threats from ordinary circumstances that don’t ordinarily rattle us – from routine staff meetings and casual social encounters.

Happily, stress-induced brain and behavior changes seem reversible. Atrophied decision-making and goal oriented areas of the brain can resprout while overgrown habit prone areas retreat. Says one neuroendocrinologist, “The brain is a very resilient and plastic organ. Dendrites and synapses retract and reform; reversible remodeling can occur throughout life.”

Of course our stress response is essential to navigate a dynamic world. Runners need a spike in blood pressure to deliver oxygen to their muscles. But chronically elevated blood pressure is a source of multiple medical miseries. As novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions.”

It’s still August, Natalie Angier reminds us.

There’s time to relax, rewind and remodel the brain.

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