Stressful Experiences Cause Physical Changes in the Brain
Yale researchers recently found that stressful experiences change the brain. Earlier studies had shown connections between chronic stress and psychological problems such as addiction, depression and anxiety, but the effects of stress on healthy individuals weren't as clear.
The researchers took MRI scans of the brains of 103 healthy individuals. They found that people who had experienced stressful life events had less gray matter (the tissue containing nerve cells) in an area of the brain that regulates emotions, self-control, blood pressure and glucose levels. The researchers think that these changes in the brain could be potential warnings of future problems – both psychological and physical problems, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. The accumulation of stressful experiences over time, they believe, could make it harder for people to deal with new stressful events.
Our bodies react to stressful events with a fight-or-flight response that was useful at a time when people lived in caves and dealt with urgent but short-lived problems such as running away from predators. But the biological response system that served people so well back then can be damaging now, when most of our stress is more chronic than acute.
The good news is that damage caused by stress can be reversed. "The brain is dynamic and plastic and things can improve — but only if stress is dealt with in a healthy manner,” one of the study authors said. “If not, the effects of stress can have a negative impact on both our physical and mental health.”
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