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Do you ever wonder what happens to the brain under stress? Does stress serve a purpose? How detrimental is chronic stress on the brain?
When I was 36 years old, I woke up from the downward spiral of drug addiction. As the fog lifted, I wondered how the heck I ended up here.
I set out on a journey to understand my brain, my bend, and why I became addicted. Understanding how the brain works and how it can be rewired is basically a lifelong study. I’ve just scraped the surface; however, I’ve learned enough that I’d like to share with you so I’m starting a new series called, Brain Health. Get your brain healthy and you’ll have the capacity to get your finances in order.
The Most Amazing Organ: The Brain
Additionally, I’ll continue to delve into educating myself on this topic in hopes of helping others and myself. The goal is so that we may live our most optimal lives.
Since the brain affects everything we do, I think this topic is appropriate for, well, everyone.
I read the book, Brain Rules, by Dr. John Medina when I was taking a continuing education course to renew my teaching license. Medina’s research on how the brain fails under chronic stress and thrives in the right environments is fascinating to me.
Dr. John Medina is a developmental molecular biologist who has devoted his life’s work to how the mind reacts to and organizes information.
You’re probably reading this blog because you either want to or are taking control of your financial life.
Or perhaps you’re inspired by my story of recovery.
Either way, I think you’ll find this series on the brain, at the very least, fascinating and at the most, helpful.
Twelve brain rules
Medina breaks his book into twelve chapters and each one is centered around rules of operation regarding the brain:
- Exercise boosts brainpower
- The human brain evolved too
- Every brain is wired differently
- We don’t pay attention to boring things
- Repeat to remember
- Remember to repeat
- Sleep well, think well
- Stressed brains don’t learn the same way
- Stimulate more of the senses
- Vision trumps all other senses
- Male and female brains are different
- We are powerful and natural explorers
For this post, I’m going to focus on rule #8: Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.
Learn from the past or repeat it
Early in my recovery I was driving and listening to the radio show, Loveline with Dr. Drew Pinsky and Adam Carolla. Loveline is no longer on the air but Adam & Dr. Drew now host a show called the Adam and Dr. Drew Show.
For those of you not familiar with Loveline, they allowed listeners to call in and get “love” advice.
On this particular episode, a young woman called in and was explaining her failed attempts at relationships. Inevitably, her partners would leave her. Dr. Drew simply asked her if she was abandoned early in life to which she replied no.
So, Dr. Drew dug deeper asking more specific questions, “what was your childhood like? Were you raised by both of your natural parents?” She revealed that her biological Dad left both her and her Mom early in her life and so she was raised in a single-parent household. Furthermore, her Mom was rarely home.
This young woman never realized she was abandoned. But as she talked more it became obvious that she grew up mostly alone and left to fend for herself.
As an adult, she kept finding herself in relationships where she would end up being abandoned.
An epiphany from Loveline
Dr. Drew went on to explain that we (humans) continually create experiences and seek out situations which mimic our worst traumas as a child. This will continue until we get an understanding of the traumas that occurred in our formative years, receive professional help, and ultimately heal from these wounds.
I froze in my tracks, or rather pulled the car over and cried at this revelation.
This was my big epiphany moment where it dawned on me that I was getting into the same type of relationship over and over.
The relationships I was drawn to were ones where I was made to feel unworthy. The relationships where I was shown healthy attention were boring to me.
I recognized that I kept re-creating situations where I felt unloved. At this point, I had already surrendered and gotten sober. However, at this exact moment, I decided to set out on a journey. It was a journey to uncover where/when/why this lie that I was unlovable first came into my mind.
Once I found the root of this lie, I would dig it out and replace it with the truth. This sounds like a very big task and it was, but know that I didn’t do it alone.
Many people helped me on my road to recovery. Most of all something much bigger than you or I continues to be where I get my victory – God.
The Brain on Stress
What occurs in the brain when stressors are present? The hypothalamus, in the middle of the brain, sends a signal to your adrenal glands, above your kidneys, to release a massive amount of adrenaline. With this release of adrenaline your pulse will increase, your blood pressure will rise and you’ll feel a release of energy. We commonly know this as the fight or flight response.
The benefits of stress
Are there benefits to stress? Sure are! The brain’s’ chemical response to stress is a survival mechanism. The brain’s ability to be flexible and respond immediately in a regulated fashion keeps us alive.
Consider our ancestors in the African Savannah who dealt with predators daily. These stressful situations typically lasted seconds at best and the brain’s ability to release adrenaline allowed for our ancestors to quickly get out of harm’s way.
The balance point of stress
Fast forward to today and comparatively, we deal with stressful situations that often last hours, days, weeks or months on end by means of our workplaces, home lives and money problems.
Hmm, money problems? This is why understanding the operations of the brain, I believe, has a place in the personal finance world.
Our brains were not built to respond to such lengthy stressors. When moderate amounts of hormone build up to large amounts of hormone or when moderate amounts of hormone stick in our system for too long the effects can be detrimental.
There seems to be a happy medium of stress that can actually be helpful. Under a moderate amount of stress the brain will perform better, it’s able to solve problems efficiently and also will create a lasting memory so that under similar situations our brain will recall how it managed this situation in the past.
On the contrary, if the stress exists for too long or is very severe the brain’s ability to learn is actually compromised. In Brain Rules, Medina points out the skills that are affected by stress are declarative memory (things you declare) and executive function (ability to problem solve). Both are necessary skills to succeed in everyday life.
To go deeper into how the brain is affected by stress, Medina uses the analogy of a villain (glucocorticoids – stress hormones) and the hero (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor or BDNF) battling it out.
Stress hormones, to put it simply, can cause a lot of damage. They can affect the hippocampus, the very area of our brain which is responsible for many aspects of human learning. They can disconnect neural networks and worst of all in severe cases they can kill hippocampal cells.
Stress can cause brain damage.
But, we are not without a defender. BDNF is one of the powerful proteins that can actually keep neurons alive and growing in the midst of hostile environments.
Unfortunately, BDNFs can be overwhelmed when the stress hormones exist for too long in the brain. In large enough quantities stress hormones can actually turn off the gene that makes the BDNF in hippocampal cells. This is often why those who experience extreme trauma cannot remember certain details surrounding the trauma.
Chronic Stress and Depression
Chronic stress can also lead to severe depression, severe depression can be a precursor to suicide. Currently, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. With statistics like this depression is an illness which deserves attention.
Depression is a breakdown of thought processes, such as memory, language, quantitative reasoning, fluid intelligence, and spatial perception. Check out these articles from Good Life Better and Slowly Sipping Coffee for how they’ve dealt as survivors of suicide.
Breaking the Cycle
We all have our breaking point when the load of stress is too great to bear and something has to change. Unfortunately, for many who do not perceive a way out, the change they seek may be fatal.
My breaking point came on one very dark day in August of 2009 when I realized I losing my mind. I knew if I didn’t do something fast I was going to die or at best spend my days in mental institutions.
Fortunately, I cried out to God and surrendered my life, I had nothing left to give. My ability to receive and process new information was dim. I was in a desperate state.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend what I did next to anyone as there are numerous detox programs available. However, I quit everything cold turkey – alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and most importantly the abusive relationship.
I then poured myself into finding out how I got here. I talked to hundreds of people, some professional and others who had just learned to recover from similar downfalls.
For fear that my brain may not completely heal, I also lost myself in researching the brain and the different effects drugs have on it.
I’ll never forget a pivotal day when I was watching a series of DVDs created by medical doctors on what occurs in the brain under the influence of different drugs. In these DVDs, they explained the typical length of time it takes the brain to heal from each specific drug.
Then I heard the words that were like music to my ears, “the brain has the amazing ability to heal itself”. This was the glimmer of hope I was searching for! Up until this point, the verdict was still out in my mind.
Closing Thoughts and What to Expect in This Series
I can go much deeper both with my personal experience and in the research out there. Stay tuned for future posts in this series on topics such as but not limited to:
- Exploring the other 11 brain rules that Dr. Medina proposes.
- Outliers – we all know people who have thrived in the throes of chronic stress.
- Re-wiring the brain.
- Replacing old habitual ways of thinking with new ones.
So I’d honestly love to hear from you. Is this something you are interested in reading? If yes, what specifically would you like to read in this series? What do you want to learn about the brain? Additionally, do you have a story or experience that might be relevant? If so, please shoot me a line at msfiology [at] gmail.com