Effects of Stress On The Brain

Effects of Stress On The Brain: How stress can affect the human brain in different stressful situations 

By: Maryam Abro

 

To understand the common feeling of “stress” on the human brain, we need to understand the definition.

Carter (2007) defines stress as:

“A person-environment, biopsychosocial interaction, wherein environmental events (known as “stressors”) are appraised first as either positive or unwanted and negative. If the appraisal is that the stressor is unwanted and negative, some action to cope and adapt is needed. If coping and adaptation fail, one is to experience stress reactions.”

Stress is a result of uncertain, adverse, random, and overwhelming events. Stress is  greater if there are already problems and struggles in one’s life. Stress reactions arise regardless if stressors are “objective” or “subjective” and long-term exposure can result in negative psychological consequences, ranging from mild to severe.

It is believed by Carlson, (1997), that people who are experiencing severe stress react in one or more of the three fundamental reactions that are presented by one or more “physiological, emotional, cognitive, or behavioral modalities. The core reactions are:

  1. Intrusion or reexperiencing
  2. Arousal or hyperactivity
  3. Avoidance, or maybe even physical numbing”

Unfortunately, stress is a word used frequently in modern-day society, often used to describe the experiences that cause anxiety and frustration because they make individuals feel insecure and leave them with the feeling that they wouldn’t be able to successfully cope with situations that they may be facing. 

 Nowadays, there are many different stressors, especially during the Covid-19 global pandemic. Some of the stressors that may occur due to Covid are new rules causing changes and making new normal for individuals, social distancing, problems at an individual’s job or home, financial worries, etc. It is certain that these stressors would be, or have been deeply amplified due to our current circumstances with Covid-19 as well. Sometimes, these stressors can have serious implications, for example, effects of social distancing and isolation on mental health, loss of livelihood because of shutting down businesses, deaths caused by drugs and alcohol during the pandemic, increase in domestic violence, etc. Also, they may trigger the human “flight or fight response”. Besides creating daily annoyances in life, these stressors can lead to chronic stress, or maybe even PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which is an aftereffect of a tragic experience.

The life experiences described above are the most common stressors that trigger human beings and cause their behavior to change in a certain way. For instance, being “stressed out” may create anxiety and depression, insomnia, and excessive substance abuse like drinking, or smoking. Some individuals may even resort to using medications such as “anxiolytics”, benzodiazepines, and sleeping pills to get rid of stressful thoughts. The prolonged use of such self-medication can result in various negative health outcomes.

The human brain itself is responsible to select the experiences that cause stress and it also categorizes the behavioral and physiological reactions to the stressful events, which can promote or deteriorate health. Acute and Chronic Stress has been shown to cause changes in the brain and affect many systems in the body like “neuroendocrine, autonomic, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune”. 

As discussed earlier, it is well believed that stress causes changes in the brain. Now, the question at hand is: what Kind of change does stress cause in the human brain? To find out what kind of changes take place in the human brain, we need to explore the effects of stress in different parts of the brain. 

Extreme Acute and chronic stress may cause effects on the amygdala’s stress response through three core regulatory systems: “the serotonergic system”, “the catecholaminergic system” and the “HPA axis”.

The advancement of brain imaging techniques has enabled researchers to examine the neural circuit activity changed by acute stress in humans. MRI studies have revealed that the subjects who listened to stressful events related to their life had increased response of blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) in the medial PFC (anterior cingulate cortex), particularly in the right hemisphere indicating the anterior cingulate cortex’s part in processing mental suffering. Studies conducted on humans also reported how drastic stress affects the dlPFC operations, participants who had been exposed to stressful videos, displayed poor performance of N-back working memory, and reduced BOLD activity over dlPFC. Results also revealed that severe stress ended the normal deactivation of the default mode network. The subjects who had greater levels of catecholamine had more stress causing damage to working memory performance and reduction in dlPFC activity. There is a correlation between stress-induced catecholamine release and poor working memory performance. Exposure to unmanageable stress and higher catecholamine levels together impair the higher cognitive functions of PFC.

The hippocampus performs some of the higher tasks in the brain, such as encoding, storing, and retrieving information.  Once it receives the messages from the axons, this information is processed through different synaptic mechanisms. The hippocampus sorts out the information and differentiates between important and less important information. Exposure to acute stress makes the hippocampus open to attack. Minor and short-duration stress normally increases hippocampal operation by increasing “synaptic plasticity”.

Stress impacts learning and memory tasks in humans and animals by changing the structure of hippocampal neurons . These alterations occur in different stages, starting from the changes in the synaptic memory to the changes in the dendritic branches . Most drastic effects of long-lasting stress on the hippocampus is a decrease in the pyramidal cell dendrites branches. The amount and form of “synapse-bearing spines” are active and are controlled by “factors including neurotransmitters, growth factors and hormones that, in turn, are governed by environmental signals, including stress”.

The information discussed above highlights some of the crucial structures of the brain and their response to stressful events. Many other areas need to be examined in this connection, such as loss of synaptic connections, dendrites, spine and “the generality of the stress response to other high-ordering association cortices, and how genetic insults interact with stress signaling pathways to hasten disease”. Stress and its effects on the brain is a vast area of research. The crucial point for future research is to unravel how different mechanisms few of those mentioned above (CRH, neuropeptides, neurotransmitters) respond to stress hormones such as adrenal and stress-associated neurotransmitters. It could be a challenging task to study the joint role played by these mechanisms to alter the hippocampus in response to stress. Further research would be required to uncover some of the effective treatments and helpful approaches to handle the drastic effects of both acute and short-term stress.

 

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Tablet Tantrums

By: Crystal McNaughton

Does your child turn off the screen/IPad/tablet when you ask?  How many times do you have to remind your child to turn it off?  Maybe I’ll rephrase the question….how many times do you have to nag/yell at your child to turn off their tablet?  (or does this just happen at my house?)  Does your child kindly turn their screen off and easily move on to another activity?  Oops, rephrase again…What does your child’s “tablet tantrum” look like?

If your child does easily turn off their screen and calmly refocus themselves on something else, can you please call me?  Because I need to know your secret!

I have had many, many parents tell me about how hard it is to get their child to ‘transition from the tablet’ and explain how challenging their behaviors are after the tablet is gone.  I’ve witnessed it myself when I tell (okay nag) my kids to turn off their tablets, sometimes ending up grabbing it from them.  What usually happens is they scream, yell, or break down in tears.  Next, they start fighting.  The older one sits on the younger one.  The younger one bites the older one.  I’m left feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, as well as that good ol’ parent guilt for letting them watch their tablets too much.  If this sounds familiar to you, please know, it’s not just you.  It’s not just your child.  

There’s a reason behind the ‘tablet tantrum.” 

When kids are on a screen or tablet, it looks as if they are quiet, sitting, focused, and calm.  Actually, what is happening in their brains at this time is the opposite.  A number of neurochemicals are required to be in balance in our kid’s brains, and tablets and screen time can disrupt this balance. Video games or other gaming can create a release of dopamine, which feels good for kids, thus they always want MORE.  There is never enough.  

Next comes an adrenaline response, which is the ‘fright/flight/fight’ response.  The brain releases adrenaline which prepares the body’s stress response.  Psychological stress can also trigger an increase in cortisol; the stress hormone.  Take away the ‘feel good’ dopamine and we see a ‘withdrawal’ effect.  

So, we ask a child to turn off their tablet, and what we see is an angry person pumped full of ‘fight or flight’ energy.  A tablet tantrum. 

Now what?

There are recommendations for screen time.  I know things in this world are so stressful as it is, and I’ve definitely given my kids more screen time than I’d like to admit.  But I’m trying.  We’re all trying.  

If you want to check-in and see what is a recommended amount of screen time for your kid, take a look here:  https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/Children-And-Watching-TV-054.aspx

Taking away the tablet from your child will usually be hard.  But setting limits is important, as there will never be enough screen time if it were up to our kids.  Take a deep breath, and remind yourself, that you’re setting limits, you’re doing what’s best for your child by enforcing those limits and encouraging breaks from the screen.  If you want to make some changes, your Connecting Dots therapists are there to help you along the way.  Remember, we’re all here with you during those tablet tantrums.  

http://www.childassessmentandtraining.com/the-ultimate-explanation-about-the-great-screen-debate/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/mental-wealth/201211/screens-and-the-stress-response

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Physical Activity can be Fun!

By: Lisa Montgomery

Physical  Activity is very beneficial for both children and adults.  Regardless of whether a child has a disability or not the benefits of physical activity are very important. 

In Canada, many sport facilities and Sport Groups follow the Long Term Athlete Development Model.  This model starts with Awareness and First Involvement to Learn to Train on the child side.  From Learn to Train it goes through to Train to Win or Active For Life.   It is very important that children are exposed to movement fundamentals so they themselves can have a desire to learn more and progress through the stages.   For more information on the Long Term Athlete Development Model please go to: https://sportforlife.ca/long-term-development/

Benefits of Physical Activity For Children Include: 

The recommendation is 60 minutes physical activity per day.  This is something that can be broken down into smaller increments.  I often hear parents saying…I just don’t know what to do.  Some excellent websites include: 

  • Going for a walk through the house or outside and playing I spy, or making a scavenger hunt can make a walk long way. 
    • Going on a bear hunt…. https://youtu.be/5_ShP3fiEhU
    • Use the above song but change the words to whichever activity/feeling  you’d like to use 
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Getting the Cooperation of the Uncooperative Child Part 2

By Christine Marchant

There many ways a child will show you that he or she doesn’t want to cooperate. There are many reasons the child isn’t cooperating. Although it may be difficult to figure out why a child is behaving a certain way, it may be counterproductive to make assumptions regarding the motives of his or her behaviour. In the previous post I described how I responded to the volatile child that verbally attacked a CDF (child development facilitator) with everything he had in his skill box. These are the children that are the hardest to love and accept. They tend to push away everyone, which is sad because they really are in need of the love, smiles, hugs, acceptance, and guidance from an adult. In this post, I will describe how I respond to the child that runs away, or darts and hides. These children are difficult to communicate with because they resist by removing themselves from what they see as a threat. These children will refuse to participate in activities and often will climb railings, shelves, counters, tables, etc. Taking these children outside is a HUGE danger!

Communicating with these types of children takes a lot of quiet body and patience. It looks like you are doing what the child wants, but that’s because you are! You need to guide the child to do what you want him to do, and you do this by guiding him towards what he is interested in. If you only provide the activities that you want the child to do, and it’s something that the child loves, you will be able to engage him.

Bringing activities that the child loves isn’t going to be enough for these children because this can lead to them becoming rigid and manipulating you into doing what he wants to do, the way he wants to do it. The point of being a CDF is to be the one in charge of bringing the child along and developing a relationship and maturity. I am always talking about meeting the child on his level. This means going to where the child is always running to. If it’s in his bed, have the session on his bed. If he’s running to the top floor landing overlooking the family living area, you go there. If it’s under the table, you go under the table. I once spent half a preschool morning under a table, lying on my belly, watching the class mates and the child I was with help my hand the entire time. I didn’t make any demands, or have any expectations of him. We laid there watching the other children playing. When you go to their safe place, you will see why he choses it and you will get a better feeling for the ‘why’ he’s doing what he’s doing.

If you are working with children, this is where you start the session. As a parent, you are always keeping this goal in mind. The goal is to keep the child regulated and engaged. You want to continue building a relationship with the child and slowly move him from his safe place to a more functional area. This is the fastest way with the least amount of stress and fuss. This can take thirty minutes up to a month. When I have this type of child, I bring my picnic blanket. I place it in the child’s safe place. This is a bridge between the safe place and the place you are going to be. Change only 1 thing at a time. Change is a stressor for these children. Keep the location and the activity, and change the bridge.

Once the child is comfortable and eager to sit and stay on the blanket doing the activities he enjoys, you start to drag the blanket towards the new spot. Some will drag the blanket back to the original spot. You just calmly say, “It’s ok. It’s only a couple of inches, leave it here.” The child will usually accept it. Once the child is comfortable here, you drag it a couple of inches towards the new spot, and you just calmly reassure him that it’s only a couple of inches and it’s ok. Just keep repeating this. Always keep the activities fun and do what the child is engaged in. Keep the blanket, but the only change is the dragging of the blanket to the new place.

When you are doing this, you must remember that the goal is not the activities. The goal is to keep the child calm, engaged, regulated, and moving to the targeted area. When you finally get to the target area, you change the goal. Now the goal is to move the child up to the next level of play, or maybe speech, or social thinking. At this point, the child is now calm, trusting, and has a relationship with you. Keep the blanket and change the activity. You can do occupational therapy, speech, or just play or read on the blanket. The blanket has now become their safe place.

When the child is now engaged in the targeted goals, you will be leaving the blanket more often for longer periods. Eventually, you will remove the blanket. Sometimes the child notices it, but if you time it correctly, he won’t even notice and eventually, you just stop bringing it. This can be the tricky part. With the blanket gone, you must keep the activities fun and the child engaged. Don’t introduce an undesired activity while the child is transitioning to the new place. Make sure that the child remains calm, which may mean that you drop your expectations or demands on the child. If the child does start to get escalated, it is a good idea to keep his favourite toy or book nearby. It’s also ok to be goofy and make silly faces or engage in a lighthearted way that makes the child feel more comfortable. Regardless of the behaviour, every child is still just a child.

 

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