Tag Archives: Stress

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.

Depression: more on what we don’t know

Time Magazine has an online article titled “Study: ‘Depression Gene’ Doesn’t Predict the Blues.”

The article reviews a recent meta-analysis published in JAMA.

Time’s writers report that “The meta-analysis of 14 prior studies concludes that the so-called depression gene — a variant of a serotonin-transporter gene called 5-HTTLPR — may not be associated with an elevated risk for depression, as many researchers had believed.”

However, the meta-analysis did find that there was a significant correlation between the number of a person’s stressful life events and depression.

The researchers found that “This meta-analysis yielded no evidence that the serotonin transporter genotype alone or in interaction with stressful life events is associated with an elevated risk of depression in men alone, women alone, or in both sexes combined.”

As the Time article concludes:
“So what does this mean for anyone who is struggling with depression? The science of linking specific genes to the disorder is still in its infancy, so no one should worry that their genes alone doom them to a life of sorrow. And while no single treatment works for every patient, there are many — including simple physical exercise or strengthening social relationships — that can help to lift the blues.”

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.

On the roles of the environment and FGF2 in anxiety

The Medical News recently posted and article entitled: Research suggests potential new treatment for anxiety disorders and depression.

The article reviews the study A New Role for FGF2 as an Endogenous Inhibitor of Anxiety, which was published by The Journal of Neuroscience on May 13, 2009.

The article reminds us that “(p)revious human studies…showed that people with severe depression had low levels of FGF2 and other related chemicals. However, it was unclear whether reductions in FGF2 were the cause or effect of the disease.”

FGF2 wears several hats in the human body. According to Wikipedia, FGF2 plays a role in “excessive anxiety…wound healing…tumor development.” Further, FGF2 is “a critical component of human embryonic stem cell culture…”

The researchers studied rats that were genetically bred for high anxiety and low anxiety. They “found lower FGF2 levels in rats bred for high anxiety compared to those bred for low anxiety.”

The study’s lead researcher, Javier Perez, PhD, at the University of Michigan, states that “We have discovered that FGF2 has two important new roles: it’s a genetic vulnerability factor for anxiety and a mediator for how the environment affects different individuals. This is surprising, as FGF2 and related molecules are known primarily for organizing the brain during development and repairing it after injury.”

In other words, persons with genetically low levels of FGF2 are at higher risk for anxiety.

The researchers also looked at the complex interplay between the environment and FGF2 levels.

Very interestingly, “Perez and colleagues found that giving the high-anxiety rats a series of new toys reduced anxiety behaviors and increased their levels of FGF2.” So, changing and enriching the environment has an effect of anxiety reduction and increasing FGF2 levels.

Perhaps, then, genetically low levels of FGF2 might be compensated for in part if the environment is made interesting, fun, and relatively low stress.

On the other hand, according to The Medical News, the researchers “found that FGF2 treatment alone reduced anxiety behaviors in the high-anxiety rats.”

How does FGF2 specifically impact anxiety? The Medical News summarizes the studies findings:

“Finally, the findings suggest that part of FGF2’s role in reducing anxiety may be due to its ability to increase the survival of new cells in a brain region called the hippocampus….Although the researchers found that high-anxiety rats produced the same number of new brain cells as low-anxiety rats, they found decreased survival of new brain cells in high-anxiety rats compared to low-anxiety rats. However, FGF2 treatment and environmental enrichment each restored brain cell survival.”

Thus, in one of life’s many cruel twists of fate, people who are vulnerable to anxiety because of low levels of FGF2, also suffer from increased levels of cell death at times of stress. The cell death makes them less able to cope with the environmental and other precipitants to their anxiety. Those who would benefit the most from increased brain cell growth and survival are deprived of it due to genetically low levels of FGF2.

This study also sheds a very engaging light onto the age old question of nature versus nurture. It would seem, from this study, that neither nature nor nurture by themselves can adequately explain why some people are more anxious than others. Rather, it is a complex interaction of both genetic and environmental factors.

Future studies might be able to identify new medications to bolster levels of FGF2 as well as to identify changes in a person’s lifestyle and environment that support FGF2 levels and the consequent improvements in cell growth and anxiety reduction.

The Emotional Costs of Inequality

The Globe and Mail reviewed “The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,” by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Allen Lane.

The reviewers write that:
“This is the authors’ “big idea”: People’s health depends on the quality of their social relationships, and the most important determinant of the quality of social relationships is the level of inequality.”

The book argues that as inequality increases so, too, does infant mortality, illiteracy, obesity, mental illness, incarceration, homicide, drug use and teenage pregnancy. Life expectancy decreases where inequality rises.

It’s well worth the time to read the article.

Map of Stress Across America

The Associated Press has an interactive map of the US broken down by counties of economic stress factors. It measures unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy.

A stress level of zero is best and 100 is worst.

For instance, here in Providence County, the stress level is 13.74 which is double the rate from a year ago.

Detroit’s level is 19.59.

Perhaps surprisingly, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana which was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina is only 5.84.

And the stress levels for Orlando, Florida have nearly tripled in the past year. Mickey and Minnie have their work cut of for them to entertain and soothe those Floridians.