Sometimes, the human brain can seem astonishingly ill-equipped for modern life. Our Pleistocene olfactory cortex craves glucose and lipids, which makes us vulnerable to high-fructose corn syrup and Egg McMuffins. We’ve got an impulsive set of emotions, which makes us think subprime mortgages are a good idea. And so on.
If I could only fix one design flaw, however, I’d focus on our stress response. We’re stuck with a mind that reacts to the mundane mundane worries of modern life – a falling stock market, a troubled marriage, taking the SAT – with a powerful set of primal chemicals that, once upon a time, were reserved for moments of “fight or flight”. In other words, we treat everything like an existential threat, which is why a multiple choice exam can leave us panicky and breathless. The hypothalamus, it turns out, is an excitable drama queen, suffusing the bloodstream with adrenaline and cortisol whenever things get a little uncertain or unpleasant.
The problem with this blunt reaction to stress – it’s too often all or nothing – is that, as I’ve written numerous times, chronic stress is really bad for you. It causes chronic back pain, weakens the heart and kills brain cells. Unfortunately, the miserable economy seems to making things worse:
Anne Hubbard has not lost her job, house or savings, and she and her husband have always been conservative with money.
But a few months ago, Ms. Hubbard, a graphic designer in Cambridge, Mass., began having panic attacks over the economy, struggling to breathe and seeing vivid visions of “losing everything,” she said.
She “could not stop reading every single economic report,” was so “sick to my stomach I lost 12 pounds” and “was unable to function,” said Ms. Hubbard, 52, who began, for the first time, taking psychiatric medication and getting therapy.
Anne’s sad story captures a reality of depression that’s often overlooked. While the mental illness is typically defined in terms of its emotional symptoms – this led a generation of researchers to search for the chemicals, like serotonin, that might trigger such distorted moods – researchers are now focusing on more systematic changes in the depressed brain, such as reduced neurogenesis and increased cell death. What causes this neurodegeneration? You guessed it: chronic stress. Those same hormones that make you alert and escalate your pulse can also damage the brain.
Here’s how I described it in a recent article:
Ronald Duman began to study a class of proteins known as trophic factors, which help neurons grow and survive. Trophe is Greek for nourishment; what sunlight and water do for trees, trophic factors do for brain cells. Numerous studies had shown that chronic stress damages the brain by suppressing the release of trophic factors. In a series of influential papers published earlier this decade, Duman demonstrated that the same destructive hallmark is seen in depression, so that our neurons are deprived of what they need.
“The mental illness occurs when these stress mechanisms in the brain spiral out of control,” he says.
Once that happens, the brain begins to shut itself down, suppressing all but the most essential upkeep.
The important takeaway is that we need to find ways to relax, to create blocks of time in which the stressors of life fade away. For some people, an escape from stress means a glass of red wine or a joint and The Big Lebowski. For others, it’s American Idol or a walk in the park or yoga. The specifics don’t matter. What does matter is that, for a few hours at least, our brain feels safe. We aren’t being chased by a saber toothed tiger.