What Everyone Should Know About How Stress Affects the Brain
I posted this a while back and it received a lot of attention, so I’ve adapted it a bit and added to it. Worth the re-post. Enjoy!
In a recent NY Times article, Natalie Angier wrote about new research showing that heightened stress actually rewires the brain to promote self perpetuating habitual cycles of continued stress.
Just to give you a summary, research Eduardo Dias-Ferreira and colleagues titled their research Chronic Stress Causes FrontoStriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision Making. To put it simply, they found that in rats, chronic stress caused atrophy in the area of the brain associated with decision making and goal directed behaviors and an increase in the areas associated with habit.
Are you a stress case? Hope is not lost and we can thank the Neuroscientists for their discovery of neuroplasticity.
If you haven’t heard the term neuroplasticity before, basically it means that throughout our lives we have the ability to rewire our brains.
So we might say that how and where we place our attention is very important in respect to our brains.
There has been a growing amount of research showing that practicing mindfulness meditation in our daily life can rewire things in a positive direction.
In 2005, Sara Lazar, Ph.D., an instructor at Harvard Medical School, published research finding a measurable difference in the brains of people who routinely meditate compared to those who do not. She reported,
“Meditation can have a serious impact on your brain long beyond the time when you’re actually sitting and meditating, and this may have a positive impact on your day-to-day living.”
Using MRI brain scans, she found thicker regions of frontal cortex, regions responsible for reasoning and decision making, in those who had a consistent mindfulness practice compared to those who did not.
Additionally, she found a thicker insula, considered to be the central switchboard of the brain that helps us coordinate our thoughts and emotions. She suggested that because our cortex and insula normally start deteriorating after age twenty, mindfulness meditation might help us make up for some losses as we age.
This all makes sense because rather than just falling into an old habitual way of reacting to something, when we are present, we are more likely to be aware of all the options and possibilities and actually make better decisions. When we are present, we are more likely to regulate our emotions and act from a great place of calm and balance. As we practice this, we are more likely to remember to do it and as we remember to do it, brain lays the tracks for that to happen again and again.
How can you bring a bit more mindfulness into your life for the health of your brain?
There are so many ways. There are multiple CDs, EBooks and programs to support people in cultivating more mindfulness in their daily lives. I have also mentioned many other teachers in various blog posts or you can Google “mindfulness” and see what comes up.
For Psychotherapy Professionals: Trudy Goodman, Steve Hickman and Myself are hosting a 5 Day Retreat in Joshua Tree, Ca November 7th – 12th Incorporating Mindfulness and Psychotherapy (IMP). There is nothing like a retreat experience to deepen your connection to mindfulness.
As the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions. Your interactions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Goldstein, E. (2010). What Everyone Should Know About How Stress Affects the Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 28, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2010/09/what-everyone-should-know-about-how-stress-affects-the-brain-2/