Most of us don’t need to be told how stress can negatively affect physical and mental health. It can make us feel exhausted and overwhelmed, quickening our pulse and keeping us up at night with anxious thoughts.
But a recent article by writer Alice Park on the Time.com site suggests it may also change the shape of our brains, which in turn alters our personalities and behaviours.
Park cites a recent study by Yale researchers at the Yale Stress Center that suggests traumatic life events such as the death of a loved one or divorce shrink a region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The effect of shrinkage in this pivotal area of the brain has implications for how we conduct our lives, say the researchers.
For the study, Dr. Rajita Sinha compared individual brain imagery with personal histories from 100 healthy participants. Those personal histories included information on traumatic events such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, or professional and financial disappointments. Dr. Sinha and her fellow researchers discovered that these events resulted in a reduction in the size of the prefrontal cortex.
In many ways, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for who we are emotionally and who we appear to be socially. It sits at the front of the brain directly behind the forehead and is associated with cognition, impulse control emotion, metabolism and social behaviour. So the impact of a change in this region can be significant. Because it impairs judgment and impulse control, it can make us more susceptible to addictions and impulsive or socially irresponsible behaviours.
The study added further dimension to the relationship between stress and brainpower, however. For example, a disruptive event such as losing a job appeared to negatively affect emotional awareness and empathy most, while the death of a loved one affected mood and increased the risk of depression.
Chronic life stresses such as work or financial worries don’t seem to have such a dramatic impact on the brain’s shape. But Sinha’s study suggests that it’s important to acknowledge the physiological impact of stress and to try and offset it through living a socially engaged and healthy lifestyle; one that puts a premium on supportive relationships and feel-good activities.