Tag Archives: Stress Management

Stressed like a rat

Stuck in a rut? There is new research that explains how, under high stress loads, the brain prefers habits and routines over new learning. The New York Times published an article about this study titled “Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop” on August 17.

In the rats studied, “regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.”

These neurological changes can evidently be reversed: “with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting…the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls…”

So if you’re under a lot of stress and keep repeating the same behaviors, getting the same frustrating results, then take a lesson from these rats. The answer may lie in putting the problem aside for a while. Take a break and give the brain time to regenerate “atrophied synaptic connections in the decisive regions of the prefrontal cortex…” Then you can approach the problem from a fresh and hopefully more effective perspective.

Why People Might Use Anxiety to Avoid Depression

[A quick administrative note. I recently entered into an agreement with MentalHelp.net to provide blog posts for them. Some of the entries made here will also appear in their blog. This is the first such post.]

Back in March of this year, I was listening to NPR while driving around town doing errands. Terry Gross was interviewing Donovan Campbell, the author of Joker One. His book is about a platoon of Marines stationed in Ramadi, Iraq. Campbell was talking to Gross about a soldier under his command that was killed in Iraq. Campbell began crying while talking about the death. I found it remarkable that a battle-hardened Marine officer who served three tours in the Middle East and had written a book on the topic could still allow himself the candor and authenticity to cry on national radio about a man who died several years earlier.

I bought the book. I was not disappointed.

Joker One

Around the same time, I was puzzling over a clinical question that was happening frequently enough to catch my attention. In some cases, when treatment of anxiety symptoms was successful, depressive symptoms emerged. The reverse of that seemed also true: alleviation of depression sometimes led to resurging anxiety symptoms. I spent a lot of time thinking about the psychological and social conditions that might be at work in these instances.

Patients sadly asked me why it should be that now that the anxiety attacks were gone, instead of being happy they had become depressed. I had some stock answers to the problem. However, they no longer satisfied me. More importantly, I don’t think my answers were helpful to them.

This process occurred both in individual and marital therapies. Anxiety symptoms apparently were defenses against becoming depressed. And if someone was previously anxious and then became depressed, the depression-in part-served as a defense against a return of anxiety.

Further, the symptoms themselves guarded against fully coming to terms with the reality of the person’s or couple’s situation.

That all sounds complicated and I will attempt to unpack it as we go along.

Hope, I believe, also plays a pivotal role. Hope, that is, in both its manifestations: an alluring, sweetly promised desire and as an unfulfilled, tormenting, scoffing longing. But we’ll get to that later.

In subsequent posts I will also provide clinical examples of anxiety as a defense against depression (and vice versa) for individuals and in marriages. I will also try to work out some of the dynamics involved.

But to get started, let’s return to Donovan Campbell’s Joker One. It was while reading this work that I began to formulate an answer to the clinical questions that were dogging me.

Some caveats before I begin. This is not a review of the book itself. Nor is this intended as an analysis of the book’s author or the other Marines. Nor am I making any comment on America’s current wars or politics.

Rather, I simply want to look at some of the psychological effects of exposure to urban warfare.

I deeply respect and admire Mr. Campbell and the other Marines in this book. Nothing that I write below is intended as a slight or criticism of those men. I strongly recommend that you read Joker One. It is a work of art and love birthed in one of earth’s many hells.

Okay, now to the book.


The setting is Ramadi, Iraq in 2004. In Campbell’s words, the city “contained roughly 350,000 people…one of the highest population densities on earth…its alien nature struck me almost like a physical blow. No amount of training at abandoned U.S. bases could have prepared us…” Add to this that none of the 150 Marines spoke the local language. The city was home to unknown numbers of well-armed insurgents who did not wear identifying uniforms. Mortars were fired routinely into the Marine’s base. Their job was to “walk the city on foot” where “trash and human waste littered every street” and for the 150 Marines to secure and stabilize the city of 350,000.

If that is not a recipe for anxiety or panic, then I have never heard one. Obviously, a platoon’s commander cannot afford to have anxiety spread through the troops. Therefore, they would need good anxiety reduction strategies. I have written elsewhere on this topic and won’t repeat my views here; a number of them would not apply to his battlefield conditions anyway. So, let’s see how Campbell devises a real-time strategy for anxiety reduction and stress management in the midst of a hostile chaos and in the fog of war.

For one, he acts in the fashion of a true leader. Here’s how he writes about it:
“I had a responsibility to my men to provide for all their needs…Marines will only listen to those who have suffered alongside them, and if you want any credibility as a leader, you not only have to bear the same burdens as they, but you also have to try, to your utmost ability and every single day, to transfer those burdens from their shoulders onto yours.”

He also instituted “a pre-battle ritual…that we only performed every time we left the base’s confines…” The aim of this was to have “each of my Marines…think of himself first as a member of Joker One and only thereafter as an individual with needs and desires different from that of the team as a whole…a focus on the group and an overriding concern with the service and welfare of others.” The ritual was a recitation of the Twenty-third Psalm.

Praying Before Mission

So far, so good. Against an unknown, unseen force whose members were prepared to suicide if it would cause Marines to die, Campbell presents himself as a strong, competent and compassionate leader of a group of soldiers with an intense, common identity. Yet, within the recitation of the psalm was a paradox that ultimately threw Campbell into despair. But I am getting ahead of the story here.

There’s much more to Campbell’s campaign against anxiety and the dread of the unknown.

But this is a good place to take a break. I will continue analyzing his strategy in the next post. In the meantime, may I again suggest that you pass the time by reading Joker One.

Stress Relievers

Good Housekeeping has an online article 6 Surprising Stress Fixes.

Here are their recommendations:

  • “Strategy 1: Smooch spontaneously…’Kissing relieves stress by creating a sense of connectedness, which releases endorphins, the chemicals that counteract stress and depression.'”
  • “Strategy 2: Take the cuddle cure…holding hands and hugging can measurably reduce stress.”
  • “Strategy 3: Lash out less…Concentrate on the issue at hand and forget about getting even; drop the sarcasm and name-calling.”
  • “Strategy 4: Put the kettle on…people who drank black tea four times a day for six weeks had lower levels of cortisol after a stressful task than those who drank a caffeinated fruit beverage. Research also shows that a substance in green tea leaves, L-Theanine, may shift brain wave activity from the beta waves that accompany anxiety to the alpha waves associated with relaxation.”
  • “Strategy 5: Loosen your electronic leash…take turns with your spouse being ‘on call’ for minor emergencies, and make sure the sitter and the school have his number as well as yours. You may have to retrain the kids, too.”
  • “Strategy 6: Reflect on what you value. When your frazzle level is so high you feel yourself spiraling out of control, a quick way to re-center is to remind yourself of what’s most important in your life.”

You can read the whole article here.

The authors write that these are based on research findings, but they do not provide references to the studies.