Global Resilience Solutions > Category:depression

Stress: Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance!

Based upon Dr. Bruce McEwen’s Herzberg Lecture “The Brain on Stress: Novel Epigenetic Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity”, delivered at Carleton University 19 November 2015

Your body is an adaptive organism. It adjusts to the environment it finds itself in. When that environment includes significant amounts of stress, dozens of important biological changes take place, changes that impact your ability to live your life.

The first, most important thing to understand is that scientists at the cutting edge of this research are nowhere close to having all of the body’s responses to stress mapped out. But many of the most interesting responses have to do with the brain.

The Brain Changes

In people experiencing prolonged stress, the hippocampus, the region of your brain most directly responsible for processing stress, shrinks dramatically. You’d almost think that was good news. The problem is, the same mechanism that gets you worked up about stressful situations is the mechanism that helps stimulate you in general. The more stress, the less you can actually motivate yourself.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same neurotransmitter chemicals that are released in response to stress are very important in terms of epigenetics- they help to determine which of your genes get expressed in any given cell at any given time. For the brain, this means that cells begin to produce excess free radicals- molecules that are normally part of your body’s immune system but which lead to cell death if they build up.

With prolonged stress, the dendritic connections in that part of your brain, the neural pathways that you depend on to function properly, recede and begin to break down. The only new pathways being formed under chronic stress are ones that are impacted by the imbalanced neurochemical environment created by that stress- in other words, you’re learning how to be stressed.

These reactions are the sort of thing designed to help us survive periods of scarcity- in fact, in some ways they look a lot like the reaction of a hibernating brain. Unfortunately, since most of our stress is human-created rather than anything to do with danger or absolute scarcity, these responses don’t help us much.

Another side-effect of chronic stress is that your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, usually resulting in insomnia. This in turn reduces your ability to process stress.

The Brain Grows Back

Two definite factors that quickly and reliably reverse the epigenetic process, change the neurochemical balance and help your brain regenerate to a normal state are regular exercise- even studies which involved senior citizens in low-impact exercise for an hour a day over a period of time found vast improvement- and intense learning. Mindfulness meditation has also shown promise, as has a reduced diet. But by far the most powerful positive impact comes from a sense of meaning and purpose in life, combined with social integration.

On the other hand, there are a number of factors known to increase neural impairment over the course of a lifetime. These include a lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic or unsupportive/distant home life and lack of exercise in childhood.

For more on the benefits of meditation for stress, check out the TEDx talk below:


Sudden traumatic events produce a different impact than chronic stress. In this case, the problem, especially the first time around, is that you may not have the capacity to produce enough of the right neurotransmitter to fully process the stress. When this happens, your body will tend to overcorrect, and after about ten days your brain will be fully keyed in to respond to that kind of stress. That’s why one experimental intervention for post-traumatic stress involves injecting glucocorticoids, the neurotransmitter in question, within a short time after a major trauma, to let the victims physiologically process what happened to them.

PTS after a single major incident, therefore, may have a lot to do with not being able to respond to it at the time. Repeated traumas act differently, acting on the amygdala, the part of your brain that helps you control stress. As a result, you begin to respond to different levels of stressor with the same intensity your body has learned to bring to life-or-death situations.

Finding a Way Forward

When we look at the many responses of the brain to its environment, and add to that the wider context of epigenetic change and the sophisticated system of brain-body interaction that leads to the emotional and biochemical state called Survival Mode, we risk getting lost in a system of baffling complexity. At the same time, the options we have for usefully addressing chronic stress may seem both too many and insufficient to the task.

And that is so. If you’ve lived years with chronic stress or anxiety, you will not conquer it by making minor adjustments to your lifestyle. An active mind, exercise, meditation, these are all useful tools, but none of them can replace having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Stress and the Warrior

A blog post is no place to cover what could fill a book! Suffice to say that for the true practitioner of Warriorship, the ultimate “anti-stress weapon” is simply mind-body integration. Sadly, few people ever realize this consciously, even if they dabble in practices that promote this integration, like that Yoga class at your local fitness center or the Tai Chi class nearest you. The catch is this…

Can you find a way to assimilate the small tastes of mind-body integration you get in classes like those into every moment of your life, as you go through your day? When you can do this, your TAO will reveal itself to you and you will be a true Warrior who understands the magic of life.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger

Who Determines Your Reality?

Well, it had to happen…

After we’ve enjoyed a few days of warm and sunny weather here in Ottawa (the second coldest national capital on earth, by the way) – even to the extent of sitting outside in T-shirts – we’ve suddenly been hit with another cold snap.

And worse than cold and worse than overcast, it’s actually snowing!

Truth be told, this happens pretty much every year at some point in April. You get a taste of near summer-like weather and then BAM!

The most interesting thing, though, is the reactions of the people. From the several dozen people I’ve talked to today, I can only describe their moods as depressed. And it’s all because of the weather. Since it’s gray, dull, cold and snowing outside, they seem to assume that their inner worlds have to be gray, dull, cold and snowing too.

If you’re near a window, have a look outside right now. Is it overcast? If so, I’d invite you to close your eyes and visualize the weather at 40,000 feet (10,000 meters). What’s it like?

Well, as you probably know, it’s always bright and sunny at that altitude. So you can tell yourself in all seriousness that just a few miles / kilometers away from where you’re standing right now, it’s a beautiful and sunny day.

What’s the point of all this? Simple – you have a choice. You can choose to let your outer circumstances get the better of your inner world by getting depressed and down when the weather takes a turn for the worse, when your internet connection fails or when people around you are in foul moods for whatever reason.

OR, you can choose to be the one who consciously decides the quality of your inner world at all times. You can choose to live in any “world” you wish, no matter what’s going on around you.

You may remember that in The 5 Pillars of Life, I mentioned that all Authentic Ancient Traditions are about freeing you from the domination of your environment. That’s the essence of Warriorship – deciding to take responsibility for your inner world from now on.

To return to the example of people who allow themselves to get depressed because of a gray and snowy (or rainy) day… Are you able to see the day as beautiful and sunny? Can you focus on this so strongly that you don’t even notice the weather?

A form of self-delusion, you say? Nonsense. Achieving the “diamond like concentration” that enables you to control your inner world and free yourself from the negative influences around you is one of the greatest of human spiritual achievments.

Try it out for yourself and you’ll see. Of course, it takes practice 😉

To your freedom,

Dr. Symeon Rodger