Researchers Get A Better Look At Where Stress Lives In Our Brains

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Upset Young Woman Sitting Outside

Image by Caleb MacKenzie Gaskins / Stocksy

We know what stress is and what it feels like—but we're not as clear about the actual mechanisms that cause stress within our bodies, and that's part of the reason the feeling can be difficult to cope with. New research from Yale University gives us a new clue about where in the brain we actually experience stress, which could help us all manage it a little better.

How researchers studied the brain's stress response.

Much of the previous research on stress in the brain has been done on animals, but as an author of this new study, Elizabeth Goldfarb, Ph.D., notes, "We can't ask rats how they are feeling." So for this study, Goldfarb and her team set out to study actual people.

They did so by placing a group of 60 people under fMRI machines and showing them stress-inducing images. In addition to monitoring participants' brain activity, they also asked them to record their perceived stress levels on a numerical scale.

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What they found.

The team found that the stressful images seemed to spark activity around the hippocampus, which wasn't entirely surprising considering previous research on stress. The hippocampus deals with emotion but also motivation and memory. Thinking about stress, it makes sense that the brain would encode a stressful memory and its accompanying emotions for future reference.

But the neural connections didn't stop there—they reached the dorsal lateral frontal cortex, which deals with regulating emotions. And most interestingly, the participants who had stronger connections between those two regions of the brain reported feeling less stressed in the study. The opposite was also true: Participants who reported more stress showed more activation between the two regions, indicating that more chemical signaling went into their emotional regulation.

These findings, the study authors say, could help explain previous research that has shown that people with mental health disorders tend to have trouble with emotional regulation in the frontal cortex.

What this could mean for stress management.

As we continue to gain a deeper understanding of stress and how it works in the brain, we'll hopefully get some more clues about how to make it easier to deal with.

But for now, "these findings may help us tailor therapeutic intervention to multiple targets," says senior study author Rajita Sinha, "such as increasing the strength of the connections from the hippocampus to the frontal cortex or decreasing the signaling to the physiological stress centers."

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Given the connection between memory and stress presented in the study, the authors note that one powerful tactic against stress is to simply have a mental reserve of positive memories: "Our work suggests that memory-related brain networks can be harnessed to create a more resilient emotional response to stress," Goldfarb notes.

With positive memory recall paired with other stress-reducing techniques such as doing mindfulness practices like meditation or yoga or taking calming supplements, we can all hopefully get better at managing our stress response—even during a pandemic.

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