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How can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?
by Linda Egenes

Enlightenment Magazine    Translate This Article
2 February 2012

Continuing to respond to questions in a recent interview, clinical neuropsychologist William Stixrud, Ph.D.* discussed several topics, including: What does stress do to the brain? How does it affect mental health? And how can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?—including how practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique ''normalizes'' the stress response, enabling a healthy response to stress.

Please see Part I and Part II of this article.

Enlightenment: What does stress do to the brain?

Dr. Stixrud:
One important thing is that stress changes the balance of neurotransmitters in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain right behind your forehead that is responsible for thinking clearly and carrying out purposeful, goal-directed behavior. This change makes it very difficult to pay attention, to organize your thinking, to remember what you need to remember, and to flexibly adapt to life's demands. As Dr. Daniel Goleman has said, ''Stress makes us stupid''—because stress shuts down the thinking part of the brain so that we can respond to threat instinctively and reflexively. Students who are highly stressed thus try to learn and produce schoolwork with brains that work at a very low level of efficiency.

It is also true that chronic stress—or being stressed for a long time—actually ends up killing brain cells and shrinking parts of the brain that are extremely important for thinking and learning. For example, people who have been depressed or have had PTSD symptoms for many years usually have a smaller hippocampus, the brain's major center for creating memories, and this places them at increased risk for Alzheimer's disease and age-related dementia. You also see shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex resulting from chronic stress, whereas the amygdala, the part of the brain that detects threat, starts working overtime and actually gets bigger. Thus, the more anxious and stressed you are, the more anxious you become. Enlightenment: How does stress affect mental health?

Dr. Stixrud:
In the development of anxiety disorders and depression, the major cause is experience rather than genetics, and the main aspect of experience that creates these mental health problems is stress. Rats show symptoms of depression if they are simply injected with stress hormones. In humans, if you use an MRI scanner to look at the brains of adolescents or adults with an anxiety disorder or depression, the thing that shows up most consistently is a hyperactive amygdala, which indicates that these individuals are highly stressed. Because these problems are stress-related, they can be prevented to a significant extent. Prevention is hugely important because the onset of anxiety problems and depression is occurring earlier and earlier in children. Researchers think depression scars the developing brain, causing increased susceptibility to further bouts of depression. So the top priority is to reduce scarring of the brain by reducing stress-related problems.

Enlightenment: How can we keep stress from having an adverse effect on us?

Dr. Stixrud:
A healthy stress response is when your stress hormones spike dramatically to help you respond to a real stressor, but then go back to normal quickly. In people who are frequently stressed, it's the opposite—stress levels stay relatively high, go up slowly in an emergency, and take a long time to go down.

Practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique normalizes the stress response, which means that stress hormone levels are typically low, spike rapidly in response to threat, and then go down quickly. We want a healthy response to stress, but what we don't want is a chronic stress response. We want the body to help us do what we have to do when we are threatened, but we don't want the stress response to remain turned on.

With stressed kids, the level of mental efficiency is so low that it's hard for them to function. Research shows that kids who meditate do well in school because their brains are working at higher levels of efficiency.

Global Good News will feature the conclusion of this interview with Dr William Stixrud, in which he discusses ''How can we prevent stress in children and adults?''

* William Stixrud, Ph.D., is a clinical neuropsychologist and director of William Stixrud & Associates in Silver Spring, Maryland, a group practice specializing in learning, attention, and emotional disorders. Dr. Stixrud is an adjunct faculty member at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

See related articles:
∙ ∙ Four things to know about stress: What it is, what it does, how to deal with it, how to prevent it - Dr William Stixrud
∙ ∙ What is stress? An expert discusses effects on the brain

* Dr Stixrud is coauthor of a recent study published in Mind & Brain, The Journal of Psychiatry showing effects of Transcendental Meditation in improving brain functioning in students with ADHD.

© Copyright 2012 Global Good News®

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