Baby, It’s All In Your Mind

This is your brain on stress
Aaron T. Newman/

In the August 15th issue of the Journal of Biological Psychiatry, Gregory Miller, PhD, and his colleagues released the results of a preliminary study in which they found that stress impacts the body at the genetic level. While studies around stress have previously focused on levels of cortisol— frequently referred to in Pop-psychology parlance as the “stress hormone”— and the impact of stress on those levels’ patterns, Miller and his colleagues found in their subjects that it is the body’s ability to receive the signal from this hormone, even as it exists in some stressed subjects at normal levels, that is altered under stressful conditions. Miller’s team noted the differences in patterns of gene expression in the blood’s monocytes– white blood cells impacting physical immune response– between subjects serving as caretakers for family members battling cancer and a comparable group of subjects not coping with an enduring stressor of this kind. The genetic patterns in the caregivers’ monocytes impaired their bodies’ responses to cortisol’s anti-inflammatory properties. The caregivers’ “chronic pro-inflammatory state… could contribute to the risk for a number of medical illnesses, such as depression, heart disease, and diabetes.”

John H. Krystal (affil. Yale University or Medicine), Biological Psychiatry’s editor, noted after the study’s release that important questions remain, saying “we don’t know how to account for the resilience of some stressed people exposed to severe sustained stress or the vulnerability of some people to relatively mild stress… The better that we understand the underlying molecular mechanisms that link stress to illness, the more likely we are to make progress in answering these important questions.”

Resilience, as Jane E. Brody defined it in a March, 2005 New York Times article on the subject, is “the ability to weather stresses large and small, to bounce back from trauma… to learn from negative experiences and translate them into positive ones.” While this trait was for a long time considered inherent to an individual’s character from birth, this conclusion has in recent decades been undermined. Harvard University’s Dr. Robert Brooks and the University of Utah’s Dr. Sam Goldstein, co-authors of “The Power of Resilience,” posture that resilience is learned, not inborn. Resilience is an ability, and employing it “does not mean a life without risks or adverse conditions but rather learning how to deal effectively with the inevitable stresses of life.” Brooks and Goldstein emphasize that while change can be difficult, it actually fosters resilience in that people realize through surviving and adapting to changing circumstances that “they land on their feet.” The Texas Medical Association’s website promotes strategies for cultivating resilience to stress, echoing Brooks and Goldstein in highlighting “flexibility” as key to building resilience, and listing “accept that change is part of living” as an essential strategy in developing resilience.

The Texas Medical Association’s site also recommends “meditation and spiritual practices” as resilience-building activities. Just this month, in fact, researchers at Emory University unveiled the results of a study that “examined the effect of compassion meditation on innate immune, neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress,” evaluating the degree to which compassion-based meditation practices influenced stress-reactivity. For this study, sixty-one healthy young adults were randomly assigned into two groups, one which practiced compassion-based meditation, while the other participated in health-discussion sessions. Both groups were exposed, immediately following their participation in these different activities, to a standardized laboratory stressor. The results of these tests indicate that those who engaged in the compassion-based meditation had reduced inflammatory responses and less emotional distress in response to the psychosocial stressor.

Scientific inquiry into the physiological impact of meditation practices has, in recent years, gained traction, largely due to the efforts of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (HHDL), Tenzin Gyatso, in working in collaboration with Western scientists. His Holiness met, in 1979, with Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School. Benson was interested in what he called the “relaxation response,” and conducted studies on advanced meditation practitioners. Five years ago, HHDL published an article in the New York Times about his visit to a University of Wisconsin laboratory in which Dr. Richard Davidson used imaging devices to reveal the brain’s activity during meditation. He writes, “Dr. Davidson has been able to study the effects of Buddhist practices for cultivating compassion, equanimity or mindfulness. For centuries Buddhists have believed that pursuing such practices seems to make people calmer, happier and more loving. At the same time they are less and less prone to destructive emotions. According to Dr. Davidson, there is now science to underscore this belief. Dr. Davidson tells me that the emergence of positive emotions may be due to this: Mindfulness meditation strengthens the neurological circuits that calm a part of the brain that acts as a trigger for fear and anger. This raises the possibility that we have a way to create a kind of buffer between the brain’s violent impulses and our actions. Experiments have already been carried out that show some practitioners can achieve a state of inner peace, even when facing extremely disturbing circumstances.” Although the Dalai Lama’s involvement with scientific study has, among some groups of scientists and religious practitioners alike, been controversial, he writes in his autobiography that he initially proceeded in collaborating with Western scientists because he recognized that this work could benefit both religious practitioners and scientists, and “could therefore be of some general benefit to humankind.”

He notes, likewise, in his article in the Times, that “Of course, the benefits of these practices are not just for monks who spend months at a time in meditation retreat. Dr. Davidson told me about his research with people working in highly stressful jobs. These people — non-Buddhists — were taught mindfulness, a state of alertness in which the mind does not get caught up in thoughts or sensations, but lets them come and go, much like watching a river flow by. After eight weeks, Dr. Davidson found that in these people, the parts of their brains that help to form positive emotions became increasingly active.” Organizations like the
Mind and Life Institute seek to facilitate collaborative research partnerships between modern science and Buddhism for a more in-depth understanding of reality, and our minds.

Much like the “chronic pro-inflammatory state” of Miller’s stressed subjects, a society imbibed on fear of change and the unknown— like, for instance, our Post 9/11 cultural landscape of xenophobia, oft-repeated phrases involving the word ‘terror’ itself, and, in recent weeks, economic panic and collapse— creates, in individuals, a chronically stressed, pro-inflammatory fight-or-flight response in the brain, and in the body. Ongoing scientific inquiry into relaxation techniques like meditation, can, perhaps, suggest some answers to Krystal’s “remaining questions” on stress and its physiological effects, and help to explain why some people who are exposed to enduring stress can, with practice, learn to land on their feet in spite of it.

Special thanks to: Charles L. Raison
Lobsang Tenzin Negi
John D. Dunne
Abraham Zablocki

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