Monday Morning Wake-Up Call

…What isn’t healthy? Being bombarded with such a relentless onslaught of tragic events that the condition of simply living in today’s world makes these feelings chronic. So chronic, our brains’ ability to process uncertainty and anxiety might be diminishing – as we speak.

First, some stress stats: according to a March poll released by the American Psychological Association, inflation, supply chain problems, global uncertainty and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on top of a two-year pandemic, have pushed America’s stress to “alarming” and “unprecedented levels” that will “challenge our ability to cope”, APA’s CEO said. And unhealthy behaviors that began in Covid’s first year – more drinking, less exercise – “became entrenched” in the second, suggesting that the path towards a collective recalibration may be a far way off…

One way I was able to turn these stats into something more vivid – beyond tallying up my glass-of-wine-and-fistful-of-gummy-bear-consumption-per-week – was to speak to a neurologist who has found herself particularly concerned about what all this might be doing to our neural functions.

“The whole world – but certainly we see it very vividly in America – has had brain changes due to chronic stress, which makes us less capable of making decisions that can give us a healthy future, both at an individual and cultural level,” Dr Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Yale medical school, told me…

When we get stressed or feel out of control, we shift down to our primitive coping mechanisms, ramping up our fear responses and shutting off the prefrontal cortex. The higher the levels of arousal or stress, the stronger those primitive circuits get, the less affected you feel by things that might normally give you pleasure, and the more things feel threatening or sad…

As Arnsten explained to me, your brain is wired to activate its fear system if it sees someone else afraid. So when horrifying news blows up our phones, we instinctively empathize. Combine that with the new normal of living in a constant state of Covid-related uncertainty, and a political environment that can feel hopeless and intransigent, and you get a perfect neurological storm that has her worried.

“You are losing the very circuits that enable you to self-regulate, to be rational,” Arnsten told me, “and in a small-grained way not to be irritable, which is really important for family health.”

Can we get those circuits back? Research suggests yes, if we spend time in calm environments in which we feel in control. There are active ways to combat our new reality, many of which we know but don’t pursue: exercise can strengthen the prefrontal cortex, deep breathing can calm one’s arousal systems. Seeking out joy and humor, in the forms of books or music, can help. Another simple suggestion: “Do something that helps you feel more efficacious,” Arnsten said, “even if it’s very small. Often times, helping someone else can help jumpstart that.

Before we hung up, Arnsten mentioned one large caveat. In 2011, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers put three cohorts of rats – young, middle-aged and aged – through stressful situations (which, for a rat, means being restrained by wire mesh), and determined that “aging modulates the capacity for experience-dependent spine plasticity in PFC neurons”. Spines, in this case, refer to “dendritic spines”, which protrude from a neuron’s dendrite, and receive input. You lose them during chronic stress exposure. In layperson’s terms, the study concluded that the older you are, the harder it is to weather the negative effects of chronic stress exposure and respond rationally – if you’re a rat.

“Now that I’m an oldish rat,” Arnsten told me with a chuckle, “I’m hoping they didn’t wait enough in the study; that connectivity did, in fact, return with time.”

For the older rats among us, here’s to hoping.

— Sophie Brickman, from “When stressed, we ‘catastrophize’ – but we can learn to calm our irrational fears” (The Guardian, June 21, 2022)


Photo: Kat Smith (via Pexels)

Comments

  1. I wasn’t sure I was firing on all cylinders to begin with…knowing how our national reality is affecting me, I sure hope I’m able to reset..

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I think, being able to meditate in our minds, finding that quiet place we can go to, to get away temporarily, to space out, that’s the key from keeping ourselves sane, in this crazy world.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. devastating

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Another great read. Thanks Dave. Thankfully there is a body of contemporary evidence that an old dog (or an old anything!) can yet be taught some new tricks. And in the midst of consuming awfulness on the world stage just now I’m still convinced by the ‘cantus firmus’ – that ‘enduring melody’ that vibrates in us from top to toe: the melody that awakens us in the mornings, in time to see what Michael Mayne – suffering, and fully aware of his impending death – called ‘This Sunrise of Wonder.’ But we all need encouragement listen out for it. Your own posts, and your pointers to the work of others, unfailingly help to better attune my ear. As ever, I warmly thank you 🙏😊💞

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Powerful stuff here, pal, and so much that rings true. I notice, for example, that my tolerance levels have dipped dramatically these past few years–it’s disturbing. That said, I have also found that regular exercise and copious amounts of time spent outdoors do, as the author posits, ameliorate the negative effects of our current situation. It’s an ongoing battle, to be sure, but like Simon, I keep groping and grasping, holding onto encouragement wherever I can find it. (like in puppies…. 😉 )

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    This exactly describes how I am feeling … thanks for sharing!!
    “When we get stressed or feel out of control, we shift down to our primitive coping mechanisms, ramping up our fear responses and shutting off the prefrontal cortex. The higher the levels of arousal or stress, the stronger those primitive circuits get, the less affected you feel by things that might normally give you pleasure, and the more things feel threatening or sad!”

    Like

  7. Oh. I thought I was turning into a honey badger at last. (Or a werewolf.) Gosh, what a stress trip these 2.5 – 6.5 years have been for us all. I’ll be aiming for more outdoorsiness. 🌷

    Liked by 1 person

  8. micchael zahaby says:

    I’d suggest to you that all or most this havoc has been around us since the begining of time, albeit in different degrees. The only differene now is social media, phone cameras, cable news, opinion shows, podcasts (and a lot of “nuts” running amok). And the effects are instant and come from far and wide

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very interesting David. There have been many times in my lifetime when the Cold War, Vietnam, Falklands War, Industrial strikes that caused disruption and shortages caused heightened fears for the world and for those close to us involved in them. But nothing compares to today. As someone else mentioned we are bombarded 24/7 by all the woes of the world in one unending stream and it is hard to switch off. In some respects you are made to feel guilty by not watching and commenting. I do think that we are powerless to right all the wrongs in the world as individuals and by focussing on our immediate famly, friends, environment, personal health and well being etc, and doing what we can to ensure that our small part of the world is running well and as stress free as possible, we are doing a good job. If we can contribute in any way to the wider issues then that is great but we can only do so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sally. Thank you for sharing. “And doing what we can to ensure that our small part of it he world is running well and as stress free as possible.” I think this is so good and so important. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve found that getting away from the internet and television helps with stress. While I’ve been trying to stay informed about world events, I also need to care for my mental health by doing things like writing, working out, hiking etc. Being in nature and seeing that yes our planet is still a beautiful place is a great strategy to combat stress.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurie, it’s taken me a long time to figure out exactly what you are suggesting is the answer. I so agree with you. I’m not sure where I would be without my daybreak walks. Thank you!

      Like

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you so much for posting this excerpt which I needed to read (and absorb) this morning. I can relate completely to Ms. Brickman’s words as I had slipped into a dark pit and am now taking active steps to climb out. It’s comforting to know that I am not alone but it is also alarming to realize that so many in our country (and world) are existing with less than healthy brains and are not making wise decisions. As I continue to heal through deep breathing, exercise, getting outdoors as much as possible (sometimes difficult in hot Phoenix), and following the advice of my wise doctor and counselor, I will do what I can to help someone else recover.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. This is a very sobering discussion of our current moment in time, as well as the future.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. This makes a lot of sense to me, given what I already know about stress burning new pathways in the brains of infants. A good article.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: