Why do some people thrive under stress while others succumb to the pressure? A new study suggests that the answer may lie in the brain, Colby Itkowltz reports for the Washington Post's "Inspired Life."
Researchers from Yale University examined the brains of 30 adults who had no history of mental illness as they watched a slideshow of disturbing images for six minutes. Participants then viewed neutral images so that researchers could compare brain activity.
Researchers found three areas of the brain that responded to the stress of watching upsetting images. Of greatest interest was the part of the brain that processes risk and emotional response.
In all participants, activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) decreased at first when processing the images. But this area then became hyperactive for some people, suggesting that it had to work harder to manage the emotional response.
"We have not had a way of breaking that apart to see what the brain is doing," says Rajita Sinha, director of Yale's Stress Center and lead study author. "How do we cope in the moment? Here, we said, in the moment, under acute threat, how does the brain cope and regain control?"
Sinha also discovered in subsequent interviews with participants that those whose vmPFC did not respond well to stress were also susceptible to binge drinking, emotional eating, and fighting. According to Sinha, these behaviors may occur when our brains struggle to handle stress.
The research suggests a physiological explanation behind each person's response to stress. Sinha says the findings could be used to identify people who have difficulty bouncing back from trauma or who experience chronic stress. The research could also be helpful in developing treatments.
"Some people are stuck with the life they have, the chronic stresses they have," Sinha says. "Perhaps by building in certain strategies, you can beef up this part of the brain. It's very hopeful because it brings the physiology to the forefront" (Itkowitz, "Inspired Life," Washington Post, 8/2).
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