In this 4-part series we’ve been talking about brain science and how it enhances our understanding of stress and how to manage it. We’ve gone from talking in the first week about the strange hierarchy of the triune brain and how the mid-brain can take over the upper brain in what author Dan Goleman calls an amygdala hijack.
In week two we showed you how a rock climber like Alex Honnold (star of the documentary FREE SOLO) can learn to control his amygdala with nothing more than his thoughts. And last week we talked about neuroplasticity: The capacity of the brain to change throughout our lifetime in response to experience.
This malleable quality of the brain allows us to successfully navigate our way around a place we’ve never been before, like a hotel, and within ten minutes of arriving, lay down a map in our mind (aka, new neural pathways), which we can call up again, sometimes even years later. But, as we also mentioned last week, we don’t always use this plastic quality of the brain to our advantage. In fact, sometimes we do just the opposite.
Chronic stress changes the brain in the wrong direction
If we find ourselves in a situation where our stress is chronic, (think toxic boss, ongoing financial difficulties or a difficult relationship) we may be laying down new neural pathways that ultimately do more harm than good. That’s because the part of the brain where the stress response originates, the amygdala, increases in size over these long periods of chronic stress and thus gets moresensitive to stress. As we pointed out last week, this can be the beginning of a vicious cycle.
But if we engage in activities like meditation, yoga, deep breathing and other relaxation techniques on a regular basis, not only will we lower whatever stress we are dealing with at that moment, we will lower our sensitivity to stress over time. And that’s a big payoff.
Harvard professor, Dr. Ron Siegel
, calls these kinds of changes: trait changes
. Besides increasing the gray matter in a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, we strengthen the neural connections between the thinking brain and the emotional brain and thus increase our ability to control the amygdala.
The more we practice yoga or meditation or other forms of relaxation, the better we get at self-regulating the nervous system, which has been the underlying theme of this whole 4-part series. Not surprisingly, the resulting increase in gray matter in the PFC occurs on the left side of the PFC which is generally considered to be the seat of happiness and contentment.
When University of Wisconsin researcher, Richard Davidson,
compared this area of the brain in lifelong meditators (think Tibetan Monks) to non-meditators, the left side of these lifelong meditator’s PFC was often so big it was literally “off the charts.” But Davidson’s research proved that even as little as 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation practice will begin to change the brain resulting in an increased ability to self-regulate our nervous system, and by so doing, allow us to gain greater control over the amygdala and the stress response.
But what’s even more amazing, is these same activities can change our genetic coding.
As Herbert Benson,
M.D., author of The Relaxation Response reminds us: “this begins from the very first minute we start meditating.” As it turns out, the genes we inherit from our parents only partially determine how our bodies grow and develop over time. Believe it or not, there’s actually a certain amount of variation between what we inherit and how our genetic coding plays out. How well we control stress can directly affect that difference.
Referred to as gene expression or epigenetics these words describe a phenomenon that affects us at the very core of our being. (It’s almost humorous how this cliched phrase so accurately describes the effects of epigenetics!) Epi means “on top of” and it’s really epigenetic markers on top of genes that are influencing whether a certain cell turns on or off: In this case, neurons in the brain called glucocorticoid receptors that can help us cope with anxiety and stress.
Studies in rats
have shown that when a rat mother licks and grooms her pups in the first week of life these pups will have those epigenetic markers turned on, thus having a whole lot of receptors in place to help handle stress in the future. These pups grow up significantly less anxious than a pup who doesn’t get this licking and grooming.
Our environment, and in particular, how stressful it is, affects these markers which in turn, can affect us throughout life, from conception to old age. A variety of genes that affect our health can be turned on or turned off by how well we eat, how much exercise we get, whether we smoke or not and of course, how stressful our lives are. We’ve known for many years that when a pregnant mother pays careful attention to these factors, she’s likely to have a healthier baby as a result.
You are no longer the prisoner of your genes.
Epigenetics presents us with a hopeful message that we can use to our advantage: We are no longer the prisoner of our genes. Even if a parent died at a relatively young age of cancer or heart disease, our genetic relationship to that fact is no longer set in stone. By adopting a healthy lifestyle, which absolutely includes reducing stress, we may be able turn on or off certain genes that can help us avoid the same negative health outcomes that might have stricken a parent or a sibling.
If this blog has piqued your interest in epigenetics, I highly recommend watching this Ted Talk
with Dr. Courtney Griffin entitled Epigenetics and the Influence of our Genes.
She explains this all so simply and elegantly.