Psychology Today

By Nicklas Balboa & Richard D. Glaser, PhD
Published in: Psychology Today

Why stress is more than a feeling: an interview with Bruce McEwen.

There's a lot that we can learn from the celebrated life of Neuroscientist Bruce McEwen, particularly how stress affects our brains in a big way. McEwen's work expanded the modern view of stress, identifying that it is more than a feeling, but also a lens into our psychology, physiology, social relationships, health, habits, and even adaptation itself. 

This multi-dimensional view of stress, which interlaces the brain in a two-way communication system with the body, accounts for plastic, functional responses to challenges in the environment, as well as the ability to decrease this response when the challenge has passed. Our ability to adapt to these challenges, or allostasis, is a critical factor in both short and long-term life development.

However, this does not mean that stress is the ultimate "maladaptor," standing in the way of our individual success. Stress is a complex variable that is an integral part of learning, growth, and may even be the driving force of our evolution. Stress, like conversations, can be mapped into three dimensions, with each level representing a different level of engagement: 

Level 1: Positive stress serves as a mild stimulator, producing changes in physiology and behavior that allow us to embrace the challenge. Once the stressor has passed, even if we did not respond to the situation idealistically, the accomplishment of responding to positive stress ensures future resilience. This type of stress keeps us motivated, working, and even contributes to good mental health. 

Level 2: Tolerable stress represents something graver and more prolonged in nature, a challenge that could potentially damage us permanently. Whether this form of stress manifests as a physical threat, like a natural disaster, or the end of a long relationship, tolerable stress holds the potential to scar us for life both mentally and physically. What serves as a buffer to the chemical encore from this exposure?  

Connectedness is a feeling of belonging with others, and it is a staple of any interpersonal relationship. With proper support from our family, friends, and loved ones comes the healing glow of compassion and restoration. All in all, our social nature shines in the face of stress, showing how we can find resilience through shared feelings and intentions. Cut the cord, however, and a life event that was once tolerable can become toxic. 

Level 3: Toxic stress is characterized by its extreme, chronic, and intolerable nature. Without proper social support, along with chronic fluctuations in neuroendocrine response, toxic stress can serve as the foundation for countless health issues such as diabetes, obesity, depression, and other inflammatory diseases. Over one’s life experience, we accumulate an Allostatic Load, or the wear and tear on the body from chronic stress. 

Figuring out how to manage stress is an essential milestone in everyone's development. From early childhood, our experiences tag alongside our genes, carrying a rich history of life. By understanding what creates stress and anxiety, we can begin to learn how to shape our conversations in ways that elevate health and conversational intelligence. 

Prior to his passing in early 2020, McEwen caught up with CreatingWE via WE-IQ TV. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Alchemy of the brain. When you hear the word "brain," most of us start to think about the "thought generator" in between our ears. However, we have now learned that the brain is the master regulator of our biochemistry, up-regulating and down-regulating hormone production in response to predictions about our environment.  
  • A complex neuropeptide. Oxytocin does a lot more than we previously thought. In addition to its role in trust, bonding, and childbirth, oxytocin plays a role in new cell growth, protection against stress, and promotes sensitivity towards emotional stimulus. 
  • Shaping your DNA. Early childhood life experiences are critical factors in determining our future behaviors. As it turns out, our social and physical environments affect how our genes express, which dictates who we are. 
  • Best practices for healthy cells. Walking for just an hour a day can increase grey matter in the hippocampus and improve blood flow to the pre-frontal cortex, which contributes to improved memory, emotional regulation, and improved decision making.

McEwen was the Alfred E. Mirsky Professor and head of the Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York City, and a member of The CreatingWE Institute's Scientific Advisory Board

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