Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why Stress is Bad for Your Brain

More evidence that chronic stress is bad for your brain:

Children and adults with post-traumatic stress disorder have increased sensitivity to non-threatening stimuli - like a tone.

Over time (for instance, survivors of childhood abuse), adults who persisted with post-traumatic stress have smaller hippocampi and decrease blood flow in the hippocampus during memory tasks. The thought is that chronically elevated steroids destroy hippocampal neurons over time. Importantly, this study used controls that also survived abuse, but didn't have PTSD.

It's essential to address and treat chronic stress, anxiety, or PTSD. Parents who have adopted children with significant early life stressors should also be alert to this potential for delayed neurological injury. Recent evidence suggests trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy is quite effective and better than child-centered therapy only (see links).

PTSD, hypervigilance, and fMRI
Stress, Childhood Trauma, hippocampus
Relaxation & Autism
Relaxation,Guided Imagery
Stress and Young Children. ERIC
The Optimistic Child
National Child Traumatic Stress Network - Links
Trauma focused CBT more effective than child centred
Trauma-Focused CBT
Stress Management For Parents
Eide Neurolearning Blog: Jet Lag is Bad For Your Brain


  1. You raise an important point that stress and witnessing or being involved in traumatic events not only affects the mind but actually affects the physical structure of the brain. It not only affects the brain physically but is a significant precursor for development of both heart disease and type II diabetes. See the recent BMJ 14 year study on stress and physical outcomes.

    While CBT works better outcomes for PTSD are not brilliant typically 40 to 50% with even these having continued life time symptoms to some degree. What I find really interesting in the child trauma studies is the mediating role that parents play. Lowering parental distress lowers child distress. The sad thing in all this is that by the time you come do the therapy some physical impact has already begun. From what I can see of the studies treatment does not reverse the impact on the hippocampus. We see similar impacts on neuropsych functioning in 2nd time depressives.

    The other thing to be aware of is that recent evidence shows the impact of CBT may wear off over time. A big study in England showed that CBT for anxiety and schizophrenia effects wore off after about 6 years or at least patients on average were showing baseline levels of symptoms.

    Chris Allan
    Psychology and the Singularity

  2. Great comment, Chris, and you're right the parent piece is essential.

    For learning or attention evaluations, too often the time bias is reversed - all the time with the parents (getting history etc.), and no time with the child. Of course that gets you into a whole different can of worms.

  3. bearing in mind the role of cortisol on the brain, the way it interacts with memory storage and retrieval etc..we are becoming more and more informed.