I attended a fascinating talk on ‘Chronic stress and the brain ‘by Dr. Mithu Storoni, a prominent neuroscientist and researcher from London. She shared the latest research insights into the effects of stress on the brain, citing breakthrough scientific studies which help to explain mental, emotional, physical and behavioural changes experienced when under long periods of stress. There was a Q&A session enabling two-way discussion around some relevant and front of mind issues.
My key takeaways were as follows:
- Stress is not just a state of mind – neuroscience proves there are physical changes to the brain and physiological reactions that shift patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving
- The main effects on the brain are;
- the pre-frontal cortex shrinks – this is your control centre/ CEO that makes long term plans, calculated decisions and allocates resources efficiently; under stress this is abandoned resulting in spontaneous, unplanned and often emotionally charged decisions with little consideration of the longer term implications.
- the amygdala grows – this is your emotions centre; under stress this is ‘hijacked’ and is used to control your behaviour over the pre-frontal cortex. The amydgala sends a distress signal out which triggers the ‘fight of flight’ response, releasing hormones which increase heart rate, blood flow to vital organs, breathing rate and blood pressure.
- the hippocampus shrinks– this is your memory centre; under stress this is pathways is used less resulting in forgetfullness and short-term memory loss
- Emerging research suggests these changes maybe prevented and reversed with lifestyle based interventions. Some examples are:
- Trick your brain into switching back into the ‘relaxation response’ from ‘flight or fight’ mode. Mindfullness, deep, controlled breathing are all tactics for doing so.
- Change the way you respond to an event to re-engage the pre-frontal cortex and avoid the amydgala being in charge. Avoid dwelling and replaying stressful experiences and tell your mind what to do, not what to think.
- Exercise – this increases a brain chemical called BDMF which is essentially a growth potion needed for brain cells to form new connections and enhance cognitive capacity.
- Cultivate a consistent circadian rhythm or sleep pattern, ideally going to bed before 11pm when you get higher quality sleep. High quality sleep is essential for your brain functioning such that you have adequate time spent in the REM (rapid eye movement) phase which essentially cleans up your memory, removing traumatic or fearful experiences.
Dr. Storoni’s book is available here