We may sometimes joke that all of our stress is driving us crazy, but it turns out that mental health and stress are closely related to each other in a number of different ways. Here’s how they connect.

1. Our brains handle mental health and stress differently

While it seems obvious that people respond differently to stress, deep brain imaging from the American Friends of Tel Aviv University has found that a connected group of events that include cellular response, changes in brain chemistry, and physical response can help mental health care providers determine the best course of action for individuals undergoing stress and stress-related mental health disorders. These elements work together to make the stress response in the brain as unique as a fingerprint.

Professor Talma Hendler of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and the director of the Functional Brain Center at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center found that generalizations regarding the stress response are not productive, noting:

“We can’t look at one measurement at one point in time and think we have the whole picture of the stress response. This is perhaps the first study to induce stress in the lab and look at resulting changes to three levels of the stress response — neural (seen in brain imaging), cellular (measured through epigenetics), and experience (assessed through behavioral report).”

Researchers in this study have also developed a simple blood test that looks for epigenetic markers that indicate an individual may have difficulty recovering from stress.

Dr. Hendler believes that this blood test could be valuable for individualizing mental health treatments for stress-related conditions, saying:

“We all need to react to stress; it’s healthy to react to something considered a challenge or a threat. The problem is when you don’t recover in a day, or a week, or more. This indicates your brain and/or body do not regulate properly and have a hard time returning to homeostasis (i.e., a balanced baseline)…Knowing the brain metric that corresponds to such genetic vulnerability will make it possible to develop a personalized plan for brain-guided treatment based on a blood test.”

2. Stress compromises self-control

If you have ever struggled to maintain healthy eating habits when a stressful event arises, you are not alone. A new study from University of Zurich’s Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research found that stress changed the way the amygdala, striatum, and the dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex interacted with each other, making it harder to exercise self-control with regard to food choices. Contrary to previous research, only some of this was connected with cortisol, the hormone that is released when stress is present.

Researchers introduced study participants to a mild stress-inducing event (placing their hand in an ice-water bath for three minutes) and then evaluated their food choices. All study participants were attempting to maintain a healthy diet, but those with the stressful experience chose unhealthy foods more often than the control group.

While this seems like a minor finding, senior author Todd Hare points out that life is more often filled with moderate stressors rather than large, life-changing stress. He noted that this research opens up new possibilities to evaluate the effectiveness of common stress-reduction strategies, saying:

“This is important because moderate stressors are more common than extreme events and will thus influence self-control choices more frequently and for a larger portion of the population. One interesting avenue for future research will be to determine whether some of the factors shown to protect against structural brain changes following severe stress–such as exercise and social support–can also buffer the effects of moderate stress on decision making.”

3. Mindfulness meditation changes the way the brain reacts to stress

A new study from Carnegie Mellon University has found that mindfulness meditation reduces Interleukin-6, a biomarker of inflammation. Because brain inflammation is linked to anxiety and depression, this new finding offers another medication-free way to approach mental health.

The study was conducted on 35 adults looking for employment, offering them either a specific training program in mindfulness meditation or a relaxation program without mindfulness meditation. Each participant received a resting brain scan before each three-day program, along with a blood test as the study began and as a four-month follow-up.

Participants in the mindfulness group had increased functional connections in their resting mode, meaning that their brains were able to relax and release stress between episodes of job-seeking. This indicated that they were also better able to concentrate and exhibit better evidence of executive control (e.g., organization and planning) than those who received no mindfulness training.

David Creswell, lead author and associate professor of psychology in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences pointed out that these biomarkers indicated brains that were better able to manage stress, which could result in better mental health, noting:

“We think that these brain changes provide a neurobiological marker for improved executive control and stress resilience, such that mindfulness meditation training improves your brain’s ability to help you manage stress, and these changes improve a broad range of stress-related health outcomes, such as your inflammatory health.”

While some wear their stress reaction on their sleeve, making it easy to observe and treat, others may experience the signs of stress much differently. To better diagnose stress and evaluate its severity, The Oxygen Plan has created a 30-question stress assessment that is garnering support from the Mayo Clinic for its ability to accurately and easily assess stress levels.

Take a few minutes to evaluate your level of stress, then tell us: how do you deal with stress to better protect your mental health?


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