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Stress, Your Brain, and the 'Goldilocks Principle'


The concept of stress – essentially defined as the body’s reaction when under pressure or threat – has long been studied and known to impact overall health. The difficulty in determining how much stress is too much on a body and a brain resides mainly in an individual's circumstances – their age, socioeconomic status, genetics, psychosocial resources like healthy support systems, and more. In essence, the very concept of stress is subjective. The elements required for the potential to stress me out may not necessarily be the same needed to stress you out. Furthermore, in many cases, one may not be consciously aware of stress, its origins or emotional and physiologic results.

Personal circumstances notwithstanding, more and more scientific research today is taking a closer look at the type, amount, and duration of stress experienced by an individual, as one key in helping to unlock the mystery of stress's effects on the brain and overall health. A recent study out of the University of Georgia hypothesized that some types of stress could benefit brain health – offering protection against depression and building up resiliency and coping skills.

So, which is it? Is stress bad for your health or suitable for your brain, or vice versa? The long answer to that question lies in the complex and intricate functions of your brain and neurological systems and how they work together when stress comes your way. But the simplified answer to the "how much stress is too much stress" question can be found in a phenomenon called the Goldilocks Principle. If you recall the classic children's story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you'll remember that Goldilocks, after a series of "try and see" tests, finds that she preferred things in "just-right" proportion to one another. Porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold. A bed that is neither too big nor too small, and so on.

When applying the Goldilocks Principle to stress and its impact on the brain and overall health, it turns out that some types of stress in "just right" amounts can benefit your brain. Low-to-moderate stress levels from situations like preparing for a test, writing a speech, getting ready for a big meeting at work, and so forth can have protective brain health benefits. When relatively short, these stressful situations can help a person become more resilient and help the brain learn how to cope even more effectively against stress in the future. As it turns out, the brain can benefit from low-to-moderate stress levels when the events don't last long. These stressors can enhance neurocognitive abilities and performance in many people. The problem arises, however, when stress tips into the "extreme" territory and becomes chronic, with no end in sight (whether consciously perceived or not by the individual experiencing it.)

Much recent research has been enlightening on toxic stress related to Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACEs. It is estimated that upwards of 30 percent of people in the United States experienced at least one ACE during their formative childhood years. The list of ACEs is extensive but can include things such as abuse, exposure to violence, extreme poverty, household dysfunction, food scarcity, and more. The underpinnings of this ACE research are rooted in the notion that children who experience intense and unrelenting levels of chronic stress early on in their lives can frequently suffer severe and long-term health effects that might not present themselves until adulthood.

But what if the extreme stressors present themselves later in life? Are we better equipped to "handle" severe stress in longer durations once we become adults? The frankest answer to this question is no. If we developed proper coping skills to deal with low-to-moderate stress levels when we were younger, then yes, we may be able to handle this same level and duration of stress more efficiently as adults. But when the stress becomes extreme, severe, and chronic – the brain bandwidth required to cope sends a cascade of neurological processes into a tailspin that was never designed to be the norm.

Plenty of research now tells us that chronic, severe stress can change the brain – and not for good. The part of the brain designed to handle threats is overdeveloped, and the part that deals more with complex thinking becomes neglected. This phenomenon can lead to multiple mental health issues down the road, from anxiety and depression to dementia and other psychological disorders.

If you or someone you know struggles to handle life's stresses effectively, you aren't alone. Stress in and of itself isn't an enemy if it presents itself in just the right amounts and we are well-equipped to manage it properly. When we are not adequately equipped, many negative health consequences can follow. And it’s never too late to learn simple ways to manage the stress response. Be sure to talk to your doctor about appropriate lifestyle changes you can make to better manage the stress in your life – for your brain and overall health.