Category Archives: Stress

Stress Can Literally Shrink Your Brain

Sustained stress over a period of time can play havoc with our health, we all know that. It reduces our ability to function effectively and eventually takes its toll on the body. Stress is involved to some extent in every single ailment or disease known to man. Now we know it can shrink the brain too.


There has already been an association seen between stress and smaller brain size. In a study published in January in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers found that people who were under stress were found to have less grey matter in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain. Now, a recent study published in August in the journal Natural Medicine, a “direct connection” has been identified between anxiety, major depression disorder and a reduction in brain size.


Circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted


In the most recent study, researchers from Yale University are the first to discover the genetic transcription that actually causes the brain to shrink. They analyzed the brain tissue of both depressed and non-depressed patients to identify differences in gene activation. What they found was that in the brains of people who were depressed, there were lower levels of expression genes that are needed for the function and structure of the brain.


“We wanted to test the idea that stress causes a loss of brain synapses in humans” said Ronald Duman, senior author on the study and Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Neurobiology and Pharmacology.


“We show that circuits normally involved in emotion, as well as cognition, are disrupted when this single transcription factor is activated”.


Transcription Factor GATA1


According to Lead author H. J. Kang, at least five of the genes could be regulated by a single transcription factor called GATA1 as laboratory studies have indicated that this transcription factor is involved both in the loss of brain connections and in the symptoms of depression.


Professor Duman reckons that identifying variations in GATA1 could also identify people who are more at risk from depression or who are more sensitive to the effects of stress and more effective treatments can be found.


“We hope that by enhancing synaptic connections, either with novel medications or behavioral therapy, we can develop more effective antidepressant therapies” said Duman.


This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Connecticut Department of Mental health and Addiction Services.


Healthy individuals under stress


Earlier in the year, a study also by researchers from Yale, found that stress can reduce brain size and brain function in individuals who were otherwise completely healthy. The researchers asked 103 healthy participants (after prescreening for substance abuse, head injuries and other factors that might have an impact on the brain) to take part in a cumulative adversity interview that was designed to estimate the level of stress in their lives. Participants were asked questions about recent traumatic events such as divorce, financial problems, and other stress inducing factors.


MRI scans confirmed reduction


After the interviews, participants underwent MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to see how the results of the interviews compared to the brains of these individuals. The scans revealed that those who were under high levels of stress also had a reduction in brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex part of the brain.


This study was the first to show the effect of stress on the brain in otherwise healthy individuals. Bearing in mind that these individuals were not suffering from any depressive illness the findings are significant as it could pinpoint individuals who may in the future be at risk of a mental health problem.


“The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more challenging for these individuals to deal with future stress, particularly if the next demanding event requires effortful control, emotion regulation, or integrated social processing to overcome it” said Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and author of the study.


“These key regions are the regions we believe regulate our emotions, help us control our impulses and help us process our daily experience. They also control our physiology. These regions have implications for long-term health.”




Back in January, researchers from Yale found that people with no mental health problems but who were experiencing a significant amount of stress, had smaller brains than those who had less stress in their lives. Then another study identified what may be the genetic triggers that are involved in the loss of connections between neurons and a reduction in brain size. The implications are enormous.


If it is possible to identify those who are more at risk of a major depressive disorder or more susceptible to the effects of stress, then it may be possible to prevent problems too, either by taking steps to reduce the amount of stress or by earlier intervention with therapy.




PSTD Sufferers Don’t Always Get Help They Need

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) affects over 700,000 people in England alone and yet less than half will seek help for their symptoms from their doctors says Dr Jennifer Wild of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.


Doctors don’t always get it right


Dr Wild told the BBC that it is common for people suffering from PTSD to wait years before getting help and many aren’t even aware that their symptoms are treatable. Furthermore, doctors don’t always have a lot of knowledge about PTSD and how to treat it.


This means that there are hundreds of thousands of people suffering and even if they do seek help, they may not get the right kind of help. According to Dr Wild, PTSD symptoms overlap with symptoms of depression so patients are often treated with anti depressants or sleeping pills.


This is not ideal for a number of reasons. Talking therapies have proved to be more effective for PTSD than drugs and it has to be said that drugs have many unpleasant side effects. Sleeping pills for example are highly addictive and will only deal with one of the symptoms of PTSD and not the source.


Dr Wild says that doctors need to be more aware of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and understand that some symptoms overlap with depression, so that they can make an accurate diagnosis.


PTSD can start after any kind of traumatic event or harrowing experience. For example, witnessing or being involved in an accident or a violent assault, natural or man-made disasters, war, being robbed, etc. Each person’s experience will be unique.


What to look for


Someone suffering from PTSD can feel depressed, anxious, angry, and guilty, they may find it difficult to relax or to sleep and feel constantly on their guard or in a heightened state of awareness. Others may try to distract themselves to block out the memory and feel emotionally numb.


Some of the effects of PTSD include flashback memories of the traumatic event, nightmares and trying to avoid reminders of the event.


Other symptoms which can appear as a result of PTSD include aches and pains, digestive problems, weight gain or weight loss, palpitations, headaches, panic and fear. Some may turn to alcohol or drugs to ease their turmoil.


Getting better


It’s important to keep routines as normal as possible, to talk over your feelings with a person you trust, and to make sure you are getting all the right nutrients in your diet.

Although it’s not possible to wipe out the traumatic event and forget it ever happened, talking therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy can help you change the way you think about the event and help you learn new ways of coping so that you can come to terms with it.


Help is available, people can access cognitive behaviour therapy sessions through IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies Programme). They can either ask their doctor for a referral or they can refer themselves.


Suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? How about a game of Tetris

According to researchers at Oxford University in the UK, playing the classic computer game Tetris, where coloured blocks are moved around the screen, can help reduce the flashbacks associated with post traumatic stress disorder.

Odd isn’t it that on the one hand we’re told spending too much time on the computer can trigger depression and anxiety, and yet now we’re being told that playing a mind numbing game like Tetris can help.

Anyway, here’s what the study involved and why the researchers believe Tetris can have a positive effect.

There were two separate experiments and in the first one, 60 participants were shown distressing images of accidents and death.

After a break of half an hour, a third of them were asked to play Tetris, another third played a pub quiz video game, and the final third did nothing at all.

The results showed that it was those playing Tetris that had fewer flashbacks of the distressing images they had been asked to watch earlier. This was true even in the second experiment when the break was extended to four hours.

“Our latest findings suggest Tetris is still effective as long as it is played within a four-hour window after viewing a stressful film” said Dr Emily Holmes of Oxford University’s Department of Psychiatry, who led the work.

“Whilst playing Tetris can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event, we have shown that not all computer games have this beneficial effect – some may even have a detrimental effect on how people deal with traumatic memories.”

Interestingly, the ones playing the pub quiz appeared to suffer more from the effects of the traumatic scenes they had watched than any of the others.

The researchers reckon that Tetris somehow interferes with the visual memories in the brain and therefore helps to reduce flashbacks.

On the other hand playing the pub quiz is more likely to compete with the part of the brain that tries to understand what is happening and therefore increases the likelihood of flashbacks.

The study has been published in the Journal PloS One.

“Whist this work is still experimental, and any potential treatment is a long way off, we are beginning to understand how intrusive memories/flashbacks are formed after trauma, and how we can use science to explore new preventative treatments” said Dr Holmes.

Psychological stress in mid life can increase risk of dementia later on

Most people are aware that psychological stress, particularly if it is severe and prolonged, can have a negative effect not only on mental health but on physical health too.

Now recent research from Sweden has highlighted that too much psychological stress in middle age, can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia later on in life.

The research which has been published in the journal ‘Brain’ was carried out by the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and was based on a major study of women.

The original study followed up on women aged between 38 and 60 for a period of 35 years from 1968 until 2000. The women were asked about psychological stress in a survey on 3 separate occasions in 1968, 1974 and 1980 and 1,415 women responded.

“Stress was defined as a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear or sleeping problems lasting a month or more due to work, health, family or other problems” said Lena Johansson, a researcher from the Neuropsychiatric Epidemiology Unit at the Sahlgrenska Academy’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurochemistry at the University of Gothenburg.

The researchers identified that 161 of the participants of the original study on women developed Alzheimer’s disease and found that the risk of developing dementia was 65 percent greater for those women who had said they had experienced psychological stress during mid life.

“This is the first study to show that stress in middle age can lead to dementia in old age, and confirms similar findings from studies of animals. Stress has previously been shown to increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as stroke, heart attack and hypertension” says Johansson,

The study is the first in Sweden to link psychological stress in mid life to dementia in later life.

“This study could result in a better understanding of the risk factors for dementia, but our results need to be confirmed by other studies, and further research is needed in the area” said Johansson.

The researchers did point out that most of those who said they were stressed didn’t actually go on to develop dementia so at the moment they couldn’t go as far as to warn people to avoid stress or about the dangers of stress due to an increased risk of dementia.

How do you know when stress levels are too high?

We all get stressed on a daily basis, this is perfectly normal, and believe it or not, a little bit of stress can actually help to get things done. However, how do we know when enough is enough and it’s time to make some changes?

CBS New York recently quoted Dr Robert Schacter from the Stress Center of New York as saying “when you have stress, you feel like you can’t catch your breath” and “you feel like you can never do enough in the time you have”.

Ok so you might also recognise some of the other symptoms like feeling tense, irritable and anxious. However, there are other signs that you might not associate with stress which includes bleeding gums, itchy skin, strange dreams and even acne reports CBS.

People who are under too much stress may turn to food for comfort, might drink too much alcohol, and smoke more or even resort to illegal substances. All of this is likely to lead to other serious health problems.

“Stress can cause stroke,” Dr. Schacter told CBS. “It can cause heart attack.”

So what can you do about it?

Well if you live in New York the Stress Center of New York would be a place to start but if you don’t then you can either check out what’s available in your own area or take action to control and manage stress yourself.

According to the American Psychological Association more than half of all visits to a doctor involve something that is stress related. The treatment is often some form of medication or counselling but there are things you can do at home if you want to avoid going down this route.

Apart from the usual and obvious advice such as eating healthily getting enough exercise and making sure you get into a regular sleeping pattern as well as cutting down on smoking and drinking and caffeine, you could also try the following:

Get in touch with nature by taking a walk in the country side, even getting out in the garden for half an hour each day can not only alleviate stress but studies have shown it can ease depression too.

Do something for yourself each day like having a massage, a relaxing bath, socialising with a friend, even lying in bed reading a book can help.

Indulge some creative pursuits like painting, music (listening or playing) or arts and crafts.

If your stress levels don’t improve despite all this then you should speak to your doctor for some professional advice.

UK workforce turning to alcohol to deal with stress

A major survey of over 3000 employees which was carried out by Medicash, a healthcare cash plan provider, found that more than 50 percent of the survey participants felt so stressed out at the end of a day’s work that they turned to the bottle to find relief.

“Worryingly, a third of Britons admitted in the survey to having deliberately drunk too much in a bid to relax and escape work stress. Small amounts of alcohol can be good for us but regularly relying on alcohol to lift your mood after a bad day can lead to long-term dependence. Incorporating healthy eating and exercise into your daily routine is one way to break this cycle.” Sue Weir, chief executive of Medicash.

10 percent reported that they feel stressed before they even arrive at work and 6 percent said they felt stressed all the time as a result of work.

Around a third said they have had to call in sick because they had “reached the end of their tether” and a substantial 12 percent had actually left their jobs because of stress.

Employees working for larger businesses seemed to fare better than those who worked for smaller businesses as far as stress at work is concerned, as those working for small businesses were 50 percent more likely to take time off work as a result of stress.

There were some differences between professions too. Almost 50 percent of construction workers said they needed alcohol to deal with stress at the end of most days. They were also the group that was more likely to take time off too. In fact the survey showed that almost 60 percent had done this twice in the month prior to completing the survey.

People who worked in research and development were the least likely to resort to drink to ease their stress with more than 40 percent of them claiming to use exercise to de stress.

A little bit of stress is harmless, in fact it’s beneficial, it is prolonged and persistent stress that is dangerous as it can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health. In some cases stress can trigger depression, anxiety and other mental health problems as well as increase the risk of heart disease and even cancer.

People who are experiencing a significant amount of stress should consider learning relaxation techniques, find better ways of coping with stress and should speak to their doctor or other health professional for advice.

Long term absence from work due to stress is decreasing says study

The number of people taking an extended period of time off work due to stress in the workplace has fallen by around 10 percent in the past 4 years according to a research study carried out by Unum.

Back in 2006, stress accounted for approximately 33 percent of long term absences from work whereas it now accounts for only 23 percent claims the insurance company.

However, recent statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the number of people off sick on a long term basis had increased.

This doesn’t mean that more people are suffering from stress said Michael O’Donnell, Chief Medical Officer at Unum, who puts forwards a couple of reasons as to why there has been a decrease in stress related absences.

“The decrease in stress as a cause of long-term sickness absence that we have recorded may be due to the companies concerned gradually tackling stress issues in the workplace, or because some employees would rather have another diagnosis than ‘stress’” said O’Donnel.

“This trend is also shown in the Labour Force Survey, which has been consistent with our findings over the last five years”.

O’Donnel warns us not to misinterpret the ONS figures and acknowledges that some level of stress is natural and there are ways of coping with it.

“We need to be careful not to be premature in drawing conclusions from the ONS figures. It is inevitable that job losses will include those with mental ill health, including stress.

Additionally, normal anxiety about job loss is rational and should not be confused with mental ill health” said O’Donnel.

“It is a sad fact that stigma against mental ill health still exists at work, and many people do not feel able to talk about such problems with their employers.  It’s important to acknowledge that it is natural to experience stress and there are ways to manage it, including making use of employee assistance programmes, which are increasingly offered through the workplace; careful financial planning and organisation; and communication with line managers or HR if the employee feels comfortable to do so.

“There is much evidence to show that being in work is better for your health. We should therefore be very careful before encouraging people to go off sick with stress and into the very situation they are most frightened of – that is, being out of work” concludes O’Donnel.

Self medicating for stress can actually increase your stress levels

We already know that a little bit of stress really is a good thing as it’s part of the flight or fight mechanism. In other words, if we didn’t have some stress we wouldn’t be able to run away from the lion or fight with an attacker. However, stress levels these days seem out of control and too much stress is really not a good thing and can wreak havoc with our health and our personal lives.

According to the director of Blount Memorial Counselling and Concern, Barbara Lasater, and Counsellor, Andy Schriver, if you have too much stress you need to set limits and say “no”. They also say that what some people consider as coping strategies for dealing with their stress can actually make their problems worse and increase their level of stress.

Ok so what sort of coping mechanisms are they talking about? Things like using alcohol, or drugs, or eating, or shopping, or having an affair, or anger mismanagement. It’s true, these are not going to decrease your stress levels but are more likely to give you additional problems to worry about.

When faced with a stressful situation Schriver says “take a deep breath, and make a conscious decision. Think — don’t just react. Ask yourself if what you are reacting to or your response will matter most down the road”.

What Lasater and Schriver reckon is the most effective way to tackle stress on an ongoing basis is to be conscious of your health, to get enough sleep, to exercise regularly and to eat a health diet, which all makes a lot of sense whether you are stressed or not.

Other studies into stress have highlighted ways of dealing with it but first of all you have to recognise the signs that the stress you are experiencing is becoming too much. Symptoms include a feeling of being overwhelmed, fatigue, skin problems and rashes, headaches and mood swings and even hair loss.

Other tips for dealing with stress:

  • Listen to an uplifting piece of music or music that inspires you and makes you feel good
  • Learn relaxation techniques to help you relax and unwind at the end of day, avoid the temptation to hit the bottle or snack on junk food
  • Make sure you take regular breaks where you get right away from work; even a weekend away will work wonders if you can’t afford a longer holiday
  • If your stress levels are affecting your ability to function effectively in any area of your life, seek professional help

Stress affects children too, so how can you help them cope?

New figures just released by the charity ‘Young Minds’ has shown that the number of parents calling a helpline concerned about the stress their children were experiencing in connection with exams has risen by almost a third.

During the past year, 1,058 parents called the national helpline about exam stress whereas in the previous year there only 693 calls. The number of calls to the parents’ helpline about other aspects of mental health also rose by over 1000 calls in the past 12 months.

Stress and anxiety is something that many of us think of as an adult problem whereas children are meant to be happy and without a care in the world. This is simply not true. Children are just as susceptible to the pressures of life as the rest of us, ok so they don’t have to worry about keeping down a job, paying the mortgage or rent and the bills, but they do have pressure and with pressure comes stress.

Children experience stress in connection with school and exams, their friends, what’s going on inside the family home, relationships with parents and siblings and so on and the effect of unrecognized stress can be as devastating on a child as prolonged stress is on an adult if not more so.

How to help your child cope with stress

The first step is recognizing that your child is suffering. Ask yourself these questions: Has your child become withdrawn and quiet? Has their behaviour changed recently? Are they unusually angry, sulky or emotional? Are they getting enough sleep and has their eating patterns changed?

It’s important to talk to your child and allow them to speak openly. You have to listen as sometimes children have difficulty expressing exactly how they feel. Having regular discussions with your child can do wonders for their self esteem and will help to reassure them that all is ok in their world.

Create a stress free environment in the home so that when the children are at home they can relax. Try not to discuss all your worries, fears and anxieties when they are around.

Hearing something on the television about war, accidents or natural disasters can be an intensely frightening experience for a child, particularly a younger child, who might not be able to understand exactly what’s going on. Be aware of what your child is watching on TV or accessing on the Internet and talk to them about it.

If your child does express worries and concerns it’s important to take them seriously and to act upon them, mental illness is not an adult only domain.