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The Neurobiology of Stress: the Human Brain and How It Responds to Stress

 

Wor­ry is like a rock­ing chair. It gives you some­thing to do, but it gets you nowhere.
— Erma Bombeck

The brain is the con­trol cen­ter for all of our thoughts, actions, atti­tudes, and emo­tions. It ’ s the pilot­house on the river­boat of our lives. It’s Mis­sion Con­trol for all of our ? ights into space or time. It ’ s the air traf?c con­troller that helps us nav­i­gate and reroute our paths based on incom­ing and out­go­ing infor­ma­tion and how we’re feel­ing about it at the time. It’s the John Williams of our per­son­al sym­pho­ny. It ’ s the Moth­er Ship to our Star?eet; it’s … (Uh, sor­ry, I got car­ried away there, but I think you get my point!)

As I was work­ing on the drafts of this chap­ter, my own brain was very active, to say the least. I kept hear­ing in my head the words of the old Jack Scott favorite (#5 on the charts in 1960), ask­ing me that musi­cal ques­tion: “ What in the world’s come over you? ” The song also won­dered if I could ever change my mind.

At ?rst I took this mes­sage from the deep mem­o­ry stores of my brain to be a pro­tec­tive warn­ing about the writ­ing task upon which I had embarked. But alas, this melo­di­ous warn­ing was, as they say, too lit­tle and too late. Mad­ly typ­ing away, I ban­ished the tune from my head. I had an unquench­able desire to tell the sto­ry of the impact of stress in the lives of kids with LD and ADHD, not to men­tion the fact that I had a signed book con­tract sit­ting in a fold­er on my desk.

The cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al cen­ters of my brain col­lab­o­rat­ed nice­ly to keep my ?ngers mov­ing on the key­board, but I under­stood why that song kept pop­ping up. I was not with­out my own stress about writ­ing this chap­ter. To say “I wrote the book on stress” is not the same as say­ing I had con­quered it. (In fact, it ’ s a dou­ble — enten­dre. Get it? … I wrote the book while stressed … nev­er mind.)

Seri­ous­ly! How was I ever going to write an intro­duc­tion to the brain, the most com­plex organ in the human body, that you, my read­er, would want to read, and that you would under­stand?

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of text­books and schol­ar­ly arti­cles con­tained deep and dense dis­cus­sions by bril­liant sci­en­tists all over the globe who were try­ing to explain the mys­ter­ies of this incred­i­ble organ, and I had to do it in 70,000 words!

You’ ll learn in this book that the best way to com­bat stress is to gain some con­trol over what­ev­er it is that threat­ens you.

My own stress lev­el began to go down dra­mat­i­cal­ly as I real­ized I didn ’ t have to tell the entire sto­ry. I just need­ed to focus on the parts and sys­tems of the brain that are most involved in the per­cep­tion and pro­cess­ing of stress. As a neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, I ?nd this part of the sto­ry incred­i­bly inter­est­ing, and hope you will as well. Try­ing to tell the sto­ry of stress with­out putting it in the con­text of the brain is like writ­ing a nov­el with­out giv­ing the char­ac­ters a set­ting in which to act out their dra­mas. With­out con­text, the read­er can’t see where the action is tak­ing place.

This helps explain the per­cep­tion of the many par­ents, kids, and even teach­ers who tend to view the behav­iors that result from stress not as brain-based, brain-gen­er­at­ed reac­tions but as pre­med­i­tat­ed oppo­si­tion­al or even de?ant mis­be­hav­iors. Putting the char­ac­ters of this sto­ry — the symp­toms of stress — in the con­text of the brain and cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem makes it pos­si­ble to under­stand their nature and their pur­pose in a way that makes scienti?c sense. So … stay with me as I set the stage for an amaz­ing tale about how the brain deals with stress, and how the pres­ence of neu­ro­log­i­cal­ly based ADHD and LD put a spe­cial spin on the sto­ry.

THE HUMAN BRAIN: A BRIEF TOUR
To most peo­ple, the brain is ter­ra incog­ni­ta, a price­less piece of neu­ro­log­i­cal real estate that we’re glad we own but tend to take for grant­ed unless or until some­thing bad hap­pens to it. So let’s take a brief tour, just so you can appre­ci­ate the ines­timable val­ue of this mirac­u­lous organ called the brain. (If you ’ re very famil­iar with brain anato­my and func­tion, you might want to skip this overview and move on to “The Stress Response Explained,” lat­er in this chap­ter. You can always return to this sec­tion if sub­se­quent read­ing reveals that you need a refresh­er.)

The aver­age adult human brain weighs about three pounds (a kilo­gram and a half), which is a lit­tle big­ger than a small can­taloupe or a large grape­fruit, depend­ing on the grow­ing sea­son. It starts out sub­stan­tial­ly small­er, of course, but as cer­tain kinds of cells devel­op and change as a child moves into adult­hood, the brain grows in size. As a result of myeli­na­tion (the devel­op­ment of the out­er coat­ing of the long stem of brain cells, or neu­rons), and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of glial cells (the term glial comes from the Greek word for glue), which hold the brain togeth­er and feed it, an adult brain is about three times heav­ier than it was at birth. This is why you occa­sion­al­ly have to buy new hats.

The largest and most rec­og­niz­able part of the brain is the large dome — shaped cere­brum, which is the out­er­most lay­er of brain tis­sue. If you lift off the skull and look down on the brain from above, it looks rather like what you see when you lift half the shell off a wal­nut. How­ev­er, the cere­brum is not stiff like a nut; it has a thick, jel­ly-like con­sis­ten­cy that allows it to lit­er­al­ly bounce around inside the skull, which is why it ’ s so impor­tant to pro­tect the head from encoun­ters with immov­able objects.

A sheet of neur­al tis­sue called the cere­bral cor­tex forms the out­er­most sur­face of the cere­brum. It includes up to six lay­ers, each one dif­fer­ent in terms of the arrange­ment of neu­rons and how well they con­nect and com­mu­ni­cate with oth­er parts of the brain. The cor­tex is dis­tin­guish­able by its many lit­tle ridges (called gyri) and val­leys (sul­ci). In terms of space, the cor­tex is an eco­nom­i­cal­ly arranged region that folds in on itself many times. This results in a very large but main­ly hid­den sur­face area that con­tains more neu­rons than any oth­er part of the brain.

Jerome Schultz Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., the Author of Nowhere to Hide: Why Kids with ADHD and LD Hate School and What We Can Do About It (Jossey-Bass; August 2011), is a clin­i­cal neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist and is on the fac­ulty of Har­vard Med­ical School in the Depart­ment of Psy­chi­a­try. He served until recent­ly as the Co-Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Child and Ado­les­cent Devel­op­ment, CCAD, a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary diag­nos­tic and treat­ment clin­ic which is a ser­vice of the Cam­bridge Health Alliance, a Har­vard Teach­ing Hos­pi­tal.

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3 Responses

  1. Cynthia says:

    I don’t think stress can be elim­i­nat­ed com­plete­ly, but it can be con­troled to mod­er­ate lev­els. Stress can also be a killer, and con­trol­ing it is a must.

    • Good point. In fact the goal is not to “elim­i­nate it com­plete­ly” but to learn how to “ride it” the same way one would ride a bike — it is a capac­i­ty to be devel­oped, and a crit­i­cal one in our soci­ety since we will always be fac­ing one stres­sor or the oth­er.

  2. K.C. Pfluger says:

    Stress can­not and should not be elim­i­nat­ed. It is required for growth. As men­tioned above, it should be learned how to con­trol it and expand our endurance to tol­er­ate stress so we can safe­ly grow our abil­i­ty to han­dle it and still func­tion in our lives.

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