The Frontal Cortex

Stress and Sadness

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.


  1. #1 vix
    April 9, 2009

    May we should lean how live it dowm. Fify years ago most people used to live in poverty but they were happy

    Today, few people – including the rich aren’t getting anything from life

  2. #2 Maureen McCormick
    April 9, 2009

    My favorite David Mamet line is from “The Spanish Prisoner”:

    “Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due.”

  3. #3 aliceaba
    April 9, 2009

    Don’t forget about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for depression. It utilizes action and behavior as one of the main points of intervention. It uses a lot of behavioral stress reduction techniques that impact the brain. It teaches these techniques in the context of understanding the interdependent relationships of the brain, physical activity, behavior –as well as thoughts and mood. I assume it encourages the release of trophic factors?

  4. #4 Canadian Curmudgeon
    April 9, 2009

    Being old enough to have lived in rural poverty that excluded such things as indoor plumbing, central heating, and electricity, happiness was not considered. Working from ‘can’t see to can’t see’ was the only thing that mattered.

    While rural living ensured that basic food was not a problem, I know some urban dwellers who were unsure where their next meal was coming from.

    It is certainly not something to look forward to or even look back with nostalgia.

  5. #5 Milt Lee
    April 9, 2009

    Meditation is an excellent way to reduce stress. Way cheaper than drugs or therapy. But of course the real question is how are you living your life that builds so much stress in the first place? Perhaps a rural life could be as stressful as any other kind of life, but it’s just as likely that any kind of life that you lead would be stressful if you dependent on outside forces to make you happy.

  6. #6 Anibal
    April 9, 2009

    Don´t know if it is a bad or ill-defined teleological musing but if we stress for modern vicissitudes or social worries maybe it is because we don´t fulfill some function. But what function? being happy, the quest of eudaimonia?

    When considering possible threats to our survival i understand the adaptive stress response but when is coopted or upgraded to other vague and abstract social dimensions… i miss something.

  7. #7 jb
    April 11, 2009

    In addition to mindfulness-awareness meditation which addresses the symptoms and disease, here are some other useful techniques to releive stress.

    If you have heart disease related to stress consider getting some of the new biofeedback hard/software that allows you to modify the rhythmn of your heart beat to become more coherent. Read Mimi Guarneri MD’s “The Heart Speaks” to find out how a cardiologist uses this for her patients.

    From Rachel Naomi Remen, MD who works with cancer patients and burned out docs: Get a journal,and every night for 8 weeks sit down and reflect on your day. In your journal answer these three questions briefly:
    1)What surprised me?
    2)What touched me?
    3)What inspired me?
    This simple practice turns around the life of burned out docs and I’ve found in very useful in teaching stress reduction to everyone. It even becomes fun to do once you have the hang of it.

  8. #8 mm
    April 11, 2009

    This fits very well with the work of Heartmath Institute. They hold that focussing on feelings of compassion or appreciation alter the electric field of the heart and shift you out of the stress responses.

  9. #9 Bethany
    April 13, 2009

    So I can understand that stress can damage the brain – but how does that render depression or sadness?

  10. Bethany – stress, depression and sadness is all about chemical changes in our brains. Every reaction that last too long can be very dangerous – it changes physical structure so can result in some minor damages.
    And what about our poor and outdated equipment? Well, it took millions years to straighten our posture,liquidate more of hair, or to create adaptational habits for what-was-back-then. Our brain is flexible (just think about technical progress) but nature – not so, unfortunately.

  11. #11 Ecurb
    April 15, 2009

    sondaze wybory demokracja wrote “Our brain is flexible (just think about technical progress) but nature – not so, unfortunately.”

    Leonard Cohen put it more eloquently – we can read our story but we can’t change a word.

  12. #12 Jaliya
    April 22, 2009

    Jonah, thanks so much for this article. A new understanding of how mental illness manifests in bodily symptoms is urgently needed. I have lived with major depression since infancy; now, at 50 years of age, my body is showing chronic signs of cumulative stress. It ain’t pretty … Everything from blood counts to heart rhythm to joint mobility is affected. There’s no separating body from mind.

    Has anyone read David A. Levine’s book *Taming the Tiger*? I have found it so helpful in understanding how humans have maladapted to stress, and how we get stuck in habitual reactions to danger (real or perceived), shock and trauma. Levine’s work examines the physiology of the fight-flight reaction — which is natural and inherent; he also posits a “freeze” reaction, which doesn’t allow a natural discharge of tension and held energy after a danger or shock has passed.

    Levine, most of all, offers practical and effective ways to discharge the tension and unlearn the “freeze” reaction. He’s got a website …

  13. #13 Fari B
    May 3, 2009

    Yes meditation is the best thing ever! I can actually feel my body working differently as I become thoughtless. Because this kind of stress is caused by thought, it’s all in the mind.
    I’ve tried lots of yogas but there was a free one that worked best for me: Sahaja Yoga, as I learned a method I could take home and sustain on my own.

  14. #14 jk
    May 3, 2009

    I think a depress person, needs hope,and time! because when you have or you find someone that helps you to get through the difficult times, you are no longer feeling lost, eventually you come out of it, and life is more beautiful and appreciated than before! Emotional disturbances are part of depression, so often you got to sacrifice something in order to find a better or new environment that is peaceful and allows healing. of course depressing thought use all your energy, so lite or vegetarian diet could help a lot. with exercise. Of course you shouldn’t be afraid to try medicine for a short time! It all depends on severity and the causes.

  15. #15 Anne Hubbard
    March 29, 2010

    Goodness, that NYTimes article will haunt me forever! FYI, that depression was a very interesting stretch to experience. I did not fear loss of income. I feared society’s collapse. It was so very much a physical thing like a punch in the gut— or perhaps akin to being chased by a saber-tooth tiger for three solid months.

    There were several contributing factors outside of the economy: I was smack in the middle of menopause. Also, I wonder how much depression can be linked to a sharp visual and aural imagination? Since I was a kid, I could clearly picture whatever I feared and whatever I hoped. In the above-mentioned depression, I could so perfectly picture tent cities on the banks of the river near my home, a collapse of educational and security infrastructure. I could hear the sounds of the urban refugee camps: the fighting, the bartering, the children playing in the filth, the wail over the corpse..does THIS ability to imagine increase likelihood of depression? Or likelihood of happiness, for that matter?

  16. #16 Jennifer Winters
    January 28, 2011

    I know this was written almost two-years ago but I just read
    it. I googled “can stress kill me” and I must say I value your
    examples provided of other civilians who had stress described
    in my opinion extreme. I wish stress didn’t do this, unless a
    Bear is about to eat me the yes I should be stressed. However,
    With the aforementioned, it is clear what stresses me can vary
    Radically in others. I believe stress is a good thing when
    Observed and reflected in a semi-balanced time of hardships.
    However, it seems in some it can show more aggressive in our
    Health, decisions, and all the other obvious areas. Isolation
    From support or friends or even regular routines while
    Carrying a heavy burden of stress I feel strongly increases
    Speed in a downward spiral. The first thing I want to do is
    Be alone, think, and try to gain control some what of the
    Reality and what I perceive as reality. That leads to more time
    Alone and isolation. I advise what you mentioned and just
    Continue daily routines, work school, etc.; however, I give
    Advice but I don’t follow my own so well. Take Care and
    Especially anyone else that may google “Can stress Kill me.”
    I am right there with you.

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