I went to a training on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) recently. I did learn quite a bit about how to treat PTSD, but the presenter’s information about the effects of chronic and/or severe stress was what really struck me and stuck with me. So, I am going to blather a bit, and it may be somewhat technical, but hopefully, some of you will find it interesting and learn from it as well.
Many of us have probably heard of the stress-related hormone cortisol. What I didn’t know was that chronically high levels of cortisol can cause a condition called Hypercortisolemia. Quite a mouthful, right? Here’s the thing: there are two very important structures in the brain that help us to regulate our emotions (the Arterial Cingulate, or AC, and the Hippocampus). These structures are packed with cortisol receptors, and if they are constantly being bombarded with cortisol, they become damaged and unable to do their job properly. This is hypercortisolemia.
I am talking lifelong effects, especially when this occurs in young, developing brains.
Impacts of hypercortisolemia:
1) The Artertial Cingulate (AC) has top down control over the amygdala. You know that reptilian part of your brain that gets triggered in the present because something reminds you of painful memories from the past? Even when you intellectually know things have changed, you can't calm down? That’s the amygdala working. It never forgets, but isn’t always rational. So basically the AC is the structure that tells the amygdala, “Calm down, relax, that was then, this is now.” If the AC is damaged, the amygdala is hyperactive, and anxiety goes up.
2) The risk of depression goes up from a 15% chance (general population) to a whopping 58% chance. Not fun.
3) Some of the other clinical outcomes include severe personality disorders (especially borderline, for you other psych nerds out there), attachment problems, vulnerability to PTSD, and chronic PTSD.
Obviously this is serious. Take a big breath of relief, because most people will not get this condition. It is not generally caused by your run of the mill everyday stress.
Causes/ Risk Factors of Hypercortisolemia:
1) Ongoing trauma or chronic stress
2) Prenatal conditions: Cortisol can cross the placental barrier and damage a developing brain. Depressed or chronically stressed pregnant women will want to have their cortisol levels screened and possibly take anti-depressants (or find other ways to reduce stress) if they are high.
3) Severe neglect
Now I am going to go on a bit of a tangent and talk a little bit about severe neglect, as the effects are quite tragic. Some of the behavioral symptoms of severe neglect include hypersensitivity (reacting more strongly to stress and taking longer to calm down), self-mutilation, and aggression.
Another symptom of severe neglect is alcohol abuse. In studies with primates, when all of the monkeys were given alcohol, it was the neglected monkeys who drank regularly and excessively.
Individuals who have experienced severe neglect also are more likely to have lifelong attachment problems. Studies on primates also show that neglected monkeys are not accepted, as they do not know how to read social cues. Neglected monkeys will have no mates. If they are inseminated, they will not take care of their babies (as a side note, this makes me kind of want to hurt whatever researchers felt the need to so deeply damage these poor monkeys).
Severe neglect can also cause lifelong neurobiological changes. Cortisol goes up (increased anxiety, depression, and lack of deep sleep). Seratonin goes down (more irritability, anxiety, impulsivity). Oxytocin goes down (causing problems with developing healthy attachments).
Another uplifting animal study: Infant rats were separated from their mothers for six hours a day very early in life. Another group was also separated, but continued to receive tactile stimulation. The control group was left to bond with their mommies. After a bit of all this, these amazing researchers threw all of the rats in a tub of water. Guess what? Those rats that stayed with their mommies and those rats that continued to receive tactile stimulation both fought for their little rat lives for TWICE as long.
Obviously, it is the very young brain that is most at risk here. However, experiencing trauma also happens to quite a lot of us, more than I like to believe is true.
Take home message? Take care of your baby. Get checked out if you are pregnant and tend toward depression or have a lot of stress in your life right now (but don’t stress!). If you do go through something traumatic, ask for help if you are feeling you are not getting back to normal after a month or so.
I will post soon with ways that you can deal with and heal these conditions.