Brain Health, part 2 – Stressed Brains

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Welcome to part deux of my new series titled Brain Health. There is more to say about brains under stress! I’ve received enough encouragement to keep this series going, but as always I welcome all feedback, either in the comments or by contacting me. 🙂

Why am I writing a series on brain health on a personal finance blog? Well firstly, my PF blog is unique in that I intertwine stories of recovery. As someone who’s recovered from drug addiction and debt, I’ve got a lot to say about both.

Furthermore, this is a blog about getting better. Period.

Secondly, brain health affects everything we do…including money.

Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina

I’ve studied the book Brain Rules by the developmental molecular biologist, Dr. John Medina and find it fascinating. This book has helped me to reconcile with the why surrounding some of the choices I’ve made in life.

In this series, I plan to delve into the 12 brain rules Dr. Medina explains in his exceptional book.

In this particular post, I’m continuing to write about my interpretation of Dr. Medina’s Brain Rule #4, Stressed Brains Don’t Learn the Same Way.

Defining Stress

Defining stress is not a simple matter as there are different types of stress – stressors that hurt learning and ones that actually increase learning. I would also like to add here that all brains are unique and respond differently to the same stressors. I have observed some people who excel in the face of stress and others who crumble, but I digress.

Another hindrance in defining stress is that it is difficult to detect when one is actually experiencing stress. Medina uses the example of skydiving as some people love it and for others, it is an awful experience but to the observer, it looks the same for both.

The final obstacle to defining stress is that the body is not a reliable source as an aroused psychological state is similar for both pleasure and stress. In spite of the many roadblocks in defining stress, researchers Jeansok Kim and David Diamond came up with a three-part definition:

  1. There must an aroused physical response to a situation that is measurable by an outside party.
  2. The stressor needs to be perceived as aversive.
  3. The person cannot feel in control of the stressor.

When all three of these factors are present, so is the type of stress that can be measured in a laboratory setting. In part 1 of this series, I got into the mechanics of what occurs in the brain during stress.

Learned Helplessness

What happens when we are not in control of the stressor? Is it possible for the brain to learn to stop fighting?

Let’s consider the famous experiments performed in the 1960s by the psychologist, Martin Seligman. Seligman placed a certain German shepherd in a harness connected to wires that continually delivered painful electric shocks day and night. I know, it sounds awful, right? 

At first, the dog did everything it could to escape the pain. Eventually when he learned that the pain would not stop his resistance faded.

Two days later the dog was placed in a box separated by a low barrier. He was placed on the side where he was still receiving painful electric shocks, but now he was given the freedom to jump to the other side and escape the painful shocks. However, he never did. He simply lay whimpering on the side where the electric shocks were being delivered.

The dog developed what Martin Seligman coined as “learned helplessness”.  The dog’s ability to learn any other way was completely shut down. All he knew was constant pain and hence chronic stress. This only took two days to achieve. To escape the pain the dog had to be removed by the experimenter.

Two days, people! I know two days feels incredibly long when you are in chronic pain but it’s a relatively short time for your brain to shut down the ability to learn a way out. Gesh!

What occurs in the rest of the body under stress?

Now consider a study that was done with the drama department at UCLA in which actors practiced method acting. Method acting is when the actors recall a memory tied to a particular emotion.

One group of actors were asked to recall only sad memories and the other group only happy ones. While this occurred the researchers monitored their blood samples. Those who had been focusing on happy memories showed healthy immune systems – their cells were plentiful, robust, and ready to work as they are intended to do.

The actors who had been recalling only sad memories showed a very apparent decrease in immune responsiveness and their cells were anything but robust, plentiful and ready for work. The results left them vulnerable for infection.

The Outliers

Of course, there are the anomalies, people who tend to excel in spite of their circumstances.

Consider Jill, whose story has been published in a leading psychiatric journal. She was born in an inner-city home. Her father began having sex with her and her sister when they were 3 or 4 years old. Her mother spent much of her life in and out of institutions for mental disorders. When Jill was 7 her father called a family meeting in which he pulled out a handgun, told the family they drove him to do this and shot himself in front of them all. Jill grew up with a Mom who continued in and out of mental institutions and when she was home she beat her.

What occurred next is what sets Jill apart from most people. Jill grew into a lovely young woman at school. She became a talented singer, excelled at her studies and became president of her class.

Genetics Playing a Part

Psychologists have long observed that some people are more tolerant to stress than others but only recently have Molecular Geneticists been able to identify that some people’s genetic complement actually can shield them from the effects of stress, even the chronic type. Scientists have even isolated some of these genes.

Senior scientist, Bruce McEwen, has been able to explain what separates the typical responses to stress and the exceptions. Allostasis is the term he gave to the idea that there exist systems which by changing allow the body to remain stable.  Allo is from a Greek word meaning variable and stasis means a condition of balance. His model shows that your reaction to stress is dependent on four things: the actual stress, its length, its severity, and your body. Stress in and of itself is neither harmful or toxic but there is a point at which it can become toxic and McEwen calls that the allostatic load.

We all have our breaking point when the stress is too great and/or too toxic to bear. This is where something has to change. Unfortunately, for many who don’t see a way out, their change can be fatal.

Final Thoughts

As I continue to study the brain, I’m amazed at how things correlate to my personal experience. For that reason, I’m intrigued to keep learning.

I grew up as a very insecure child and that meant I was often in a state of chronic stress. My escape came through drinking and drugging. However, I also kept getting myself into the same types of situations and relationships. I couldn’t learn a way out.

Fortunately, I came to my breaking point. In my darkest hour, I chose to surrender and ask for help from God and others.

When I got sober, I set out on a journey to heal, get better, make amends, uncover the reasons why and basically learn to live an overall healthier life.  My life’s work on getting to the root of my issues has proven to be the best use of my time yet.

Reconciling with our past is important. Maybe your story is not as dramatic as mine. Maybe it is. Either way, I believe we all need to spend time syncretizing with our past. The past is the gateway to a healthier tomorrow.



7 thoughts on “Brain Health, part 2 – Stressed Brains”

  1. So interesting — and I absolutely see the correlation between brain stress and money!

    We’ve talked in the past about the emotional aspects of money. But when you couple physical stressors with the mental components, it’s no wonder the brain reacts the way it does. It’s trying to figure out what the heck is going on, and the quickest possible way to make those feelings/conditions go away (whether we realize it or not).

    Amazing, what our minds are capable of. Looking forward to your next installment! ☺

  2. Deanna I love this series of posts! This is something that I struggle with all the time and it’s very interesting and helpful to better understand what stress does to our brains and how we handle it. You do a wonderful job of painting this picture for us and helping us to see what stress can do.

  3. Love the post and the series. I find it fascinating that stress is actually beneficial in spurts to help people operate in a state of Flow. But unlike a good diet, exercise program and sleep which are all measurable, stress seems to be the invisible silent killer at chronic lower-levels. A year ago, I had a concussion that took several months to resolve. While I wish that it was a much simpler recovery than it was, I am grateful it exposed me to the brain benefits of meditation, yoga, and nutrition that I still practice today. I will have to check out “Brain Rules” at the library. Also I listen to Kwik Brain and Broken Brain podcasts. Excellent resources.

    1. Ooh, I’ll have to check out those podcasts. Thank you!

      Well said, my friend, the silent killer.

      I am so sorry to hear about your concussion! I’ve heard the recovery for that is slow. Nutrition , fitness & meditation are key components to brain and overall health.

  4. I haven’t read Brain Rules, but my wife and I listened to Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina. I’m sure it shares similar principles. A year ago when my wife was a few months pregnant with our daughter, we listened to the audiobook so that out baby can develop with good brain health.

    The main takeaway I got from the book is that it’s important minimize stress on baby’s brain. One way to do that is to provide a safe, loving environment so that baby feels secure. Babies who don’t feel secure and are in an environment where mom and dad are fighting all the time get stressed out. We also learned that babies need human interaction so that they can develop socially and emotionally. Therefore, minimize TV, screen time, and things like baby Einstein are of limited use. Talking and interacting with baby is best.

    I can see how this can relate to adult brains too. We crave a safe, stress free environment. Stressors often cause chronic disease. Additionally, adults need social and emotional human interactions too. My wife and I try to make a conscious effort to minimize our social media screen time whenever we can.

    The brain is a fascinating organ and scientists still don’t understand everything about it. I’m glad this series is continuing. And of course I’m glad to follow your journey of healing and living a healthier life.

    1. I didn’t know he wrote a book about brain rules for baby. He is so knowledgeable about the brain and yes the principles sound very similar. Good for you guys on being so proactive with this! You kid won the parent lottery.

      It really is a fascinating organ. I remember the day early in my recovery watching a DVD put out by doctors on the brain under effects of different drugs. One doctor said the thing I needed to hear that day, the brain has the amazing ability to heal itself. It was mostly uphill from there.

      Thanks for reading & commenting, Doc.

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