Stress and Negativity May Change Size and Function of the Brain

While we often feel stress in our bodies in the forms of headaches, muscle tightness, but studies show it can affect your brain too.

Whether you have read studies about stress and its effect on the body or not, most of us have felt the results of excessive stress. Perhaps you have experienced headaches, high blood pressure, digestive issues and a weakened immune system. While these symptoms are primarily experienced in the body, the brain also experiences disruptions due to stress.

Robert Sapolsky is a professor and researcher in the field of stress and the effect it has on health. For the past three decades Sapolsky has been studying how the mind and body handle stress. In an interview with Stanford Report, he said: 

"It's becoming clear that in the hippocampus, the part of the brain most susceptible to stress hormones, you see atrophy in people with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. ... There's a ton of very exciting, very contentious work as to whether stress is causing that part of the brain to atrophy, and if so, is it reversible. Or does having a small hippocampus make you more vulnerable to stress-related traumas? There's evidence for both sides."

The research and debate continue because one thing we can see in our society is that life is getting more stressful, not the other way around. Coping with stress and minimizing its harmful effect on the body is critical.

Columnist Minda Zetlin brings up an interesting point based on work by author and entrepreneur Trevor Blake, who believes that being exposed to excessive complaining can have a negative impact on the function of the brain.

Blake says, “If you're pinned in a corner for too long listening to someone being negative, you're more likely to behave that way as well."

This also includes TV viewing. Blake explains that even 30 minutes of exposure to negative viewing can "peel away neurons in the hippocampus." Sapolsky also pointed out how important the hippocampus is to brain function when coping with stress. More specifically the hippocampus. It is the part of the brain that aids in emotional response, formation of new memories, navigation and spatial awareness.

Both Blake and Sapolsky recommend taking steps to cope with the stress in your life by doing things that are relaxing to you like taking a walk, getting a massage, vacation getaways or anything that helps you relax. In addition, Blake suggests distancing yourself from those people who are “excessive complainers.” He explained that his father was a chain smoker and he knew his secondhand smoke could damage his own lungs. He wanted his father to quit smoking but that was easier said than done. Blake said, "My only recourse was to distance myself." He believes the same technique can be true for complainers—distance yourself when you can.

Stress is going to be a part of our life because there are good and bad things happening all the time. Sapolsky had an interesting point when he discussed non-threatening chronic stress like excessive worry about money or impressing your boss at work. He explained,

"If you turn on the stress response chronically for purely psychological reasons, you increase your risk of adult onset diabetes and high blood pressure. If you're chronically shutting down the digestive system, there's a bunch of gastrointestinal disorders you're more at risk for as well."

This quote goes back to the idea of managing your stress whether it is psychological or physical. You can choose to cope with stress or you can ignore and potentially experience mental and physical side effects.

Do you work with people who are constantly complaining at work? What do you do to distance yourself from the negativity? Tell us in comments.

Iraz December 07, 2012 at 04:46 PM
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