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What Stress Does to the Brain (neurosciencenews.com)
331 points by laurex 57 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 125 comments

Some time ago I had a long period of intense stress. It is amazing how much it changes your mind and body.

Muscles contract causing all kinds of insuline problems, your hormones become a mess, and all this is raising stress levels more because you don't know what is going on in your body.

And then an anxiety disorder is right around the corner.

And when everything is ok again your brain produces stress hormones when you hear a sound that would trigger you earlier or just a smell or a color.

I think this is the most difficult part to get back to normal:

The brain brings you in stress mode for no obvious reason. Then you have to reason about it so the stress goes away and you will slowly reset your brain.

But I doubt the paths in the brain will ever go away. It will be like a overgrown path in the end but it is still there.

I am in such a period and have been for months. Stupid company demands we ship something no matter what, even though there is insufficient time to do all the work, and they keep adding more on top of it. I work 7 days a week, no vacations, hardly even a weekend day off much less a vacation. I even lost my temper at work and yelled a lot, something I never do. This is no way to do proper work either. At least what little time I have away from this nightmare I do art which helps somewhat.

I support you and hope you can reclaim yourself. A lot of good advice has been given here. One thing I realized when I stepped out of Ops is that lots of the life-and-death situations we felt were, to a certain extent, self-imposed. We always thought the world was going to end if $bigcustomer became dissastisfied that the site was down (or whatever).

In the end, it turned out (as long as we did our best), it didn't really matter. The business was constantly making best guesses at allocation of resources (human, equipment, etc) and hedging that against the customer experience. 100% reliability was never the goal. Violating SLAs and potentially having to give the customer a service credit was just part of the calculus. We were taking it upon ourselves as the most important thing in the world to keep the service up, because that's how it was presented to us, but to the business it was not nearly as important.

If you can de-couple yourself from these stresors somewhat, keep them at arm's length, you'll be doing yourself a great service.

Also worked in ops my whole life and can definitely understand that stress when downtime hits and people are counting on you. Minutes begin to feel like hours.

Seeing more of these large companies (Google, Facebook, Cloudflare) have significant outages has helped my confidence a ton. We are all human and make mistakes and can’t always figure out the fix immediately.

I’m just glad that as far as I know, none of the outages I was responsible for we’re life and death situations. That is stress I don’t want.

Very good advice. Keep yourself separated as much as possible from what others want of you (not too much so that you lose what you wanted to do in the first place)

I just want to say I support your freedom. We all have bills and it isn’t possible to change jobs quickly, but please never work for a company that does that after you get through this and try to set yourself up so you never have to again. Sorry your employer has put you in this situation. I am older and have been around the block and it is never worth it, even for your own startup.

Edit: never worth it when you are experiencing it as stress. Some, rare, people can do this and they may even like it, but it isn’t typical and unless you stand to gain more than a salary, quite questionable.

Your stress is the result of responsibilities or the feeling of responsibilities you can't control.

First step is to figure pout what you feel you are responsible for but are not. You can quit that part immediately because that responsibility only exists in your head.

Then there are responsibilities you have, but can't control.

Then there are multiple options. For example:

Stop having that responsibility. For example tell that you can't take it anymore (not always possible).

Ask for help so you can fullfil the responsibility with someone (not always possible).

Take responsibility. Change your life if your way of living is holding you back from taking responsibility (not always possible).

It helped me a lot to think about it because there are a lot of responsibilities in your head that don't exist. A demanding company with an unrealistic and unreasonable planning is not your responsibility. Your well being is.

What helped me a ton to disconnect from some of this sort of stress is building up a bit of a savings buffer. Once I had a few months of savings around I suddenly started to give much less of a shit about day to day work as I could, if I really wanted, just walk away. I am "lucky" in that I have no real dependants and my partner and I have decided against kids so there's none of that to consider.

Ever since I entered my thirties I've been increasingly "selfish" when it comes to my time. No job is worth it.

Since I am a unplanned father for some months now, I would advise you to reconsider the baby thing. It totally changed all my plans and rhythm, but we never regretted aborting the abortion ...

I am in the same boat, except we just launched our broken website. CEO and Marketing people: "I think it's ready!" Me: "It's not ready, we need more time." They're eating crow now, the entire "release" has been complete shitshow and suddenly everyone is very nice. I'm taking the day off.

Not to add another load on your mind, but the long-term issue here is that - assuming this is a crunch that ends - you will still be heavily affected for a long time during normal, non-stress periods.

It takes a long pause from stress for you mind and body to stop over-producing stress hormones.

I hope you situation changes for the better soon, and when it does, remember to be mindfull of yourself and accept that everything won't go back to normal right away, just because the external stress-factor stops.

In my experience, the best cure for this is exercise especially running or weight lifting. It trains your brain to endure difficult and strenuous tasks. Furthermore, the endorphins that are released subconsciously start to build the association between feeling good after facing a stressful situation. You begin to look at stressful situations, not as something to be feared but something to be conquered. I used to be the biggest introvert because social interactions stressed me out. Now I thrive for that feeling of, "Man this isn't as hard as I thought it would be"

> It takes a long pause from stress for you mind and body to stop over-producing stress hormones.

I can vouch for this, I feel like I have been permanently damaged from a multi-year stressful job.

Speaking of stress hormones, does anyone in this thread know if there's some quantitative way to measure stress hormone levels, even if it's only somewhat accurate?

The best real relief I've managed to find is microdosing psilocybin combined with meditation, this seems to allow me to see right through my negative beliefs & perceptions, but also largely eliminate the ongoing ~unavoidable mental/emotional (eventually manifesting in physical) reactions to them. It feels like it allows me to mostly not give a fuck about things like normal people. Perhaps something the grandparent should look into.

Yes, stress levels are tied to cortisol levels in the bloodstream. This is especially bad for your physical health as it will cause you to store fat and crave sugary foods. The single best thing you can do is exercise 5 times a week for at least 45 minutes. It will retrain your brain to embrace stress because of the endorphin reward you get after. I promise you, the gym is never as hard as people make it out to be in their mind. 90% is just showing up. Don't take shrooms, you're just messing up your brain chemistry even more with a temporary bandaid. Furthermore, you're treating yourself with a drugs side-effect. If anything the drug you are looking for is Ativan or Xanax. I'm someone who used to be majorly overweight, overworked and stressed to no end, but exercise changed my life.

I totally agree, too little is known about drugs and how they react with each individual's bio- chemistry. Exercise in any form can only be beneficial, I've been through some really stressful periods and nothing like it ( if you can play a sport even better..it will give you a sense of accomplishment that is probably missing from your job). Eat healthy , have someone who can listen to you and support you. And have a plan to get out, could be a year out , but it will give you a sense of purpose.

>If anything the drug you are looking for is Ativan or Xanax

be very careful, these drugs don't fix the problem but rather solve panic attack type situations. if you can breathe, you do not need these medicines. there are lots of other medicines that are not benzos that treat the anxiety at the source.

i am speaking from experience, i was taking ativan "as needed" and ended up in an overnight psych hold as my stress outbursts kept getting worse until my family feared for my safety. stopped all medication for a month, switched to an anti-depressant to sleep temporarily, switched to less agitated medicine, 10 months later i feel like i'm on top of the world and have started taking back ownership of activities in my business.

ativan and xanax wont' stop the stress, it masks it.

> If anything the drug you are looking for is Ativan or Xanax.

No it really isn't, even if it might seem that way in the short term.

Source: Personal. Xanax for occasional stress turned into Xanax for sleep sometimes turned into Xanax every night or insomnia. Kicking the habit now and it really sucks.

Stick to exercise and meditation. Actually agree with grandparent about the benefits of psilocybin, but you probably shouldn't listen to a stranger on the internet about that anyway.

Throwaway for obvious reasons.

Not that you and I disagree, but some important additional details on the matter:

> Actually agree with grandparent about the benefits of psilocybin, but you probably shouldn't listen to a stranger on the internet about that anyway.

You certainly shouldn't base your opinion on one comment on the internet. What you should do they is consider it a possibility and do your own research, at which time you will discover there is significant discussion on the internet among both layman and professionals about not just the observed benefits (sometimes bordering on the profoundly amazing [1]), but also increasing detailed, science-based theories about the underlying physiological and neurological causes for the observed successes.

You will also realize the ratio of successful outcomes to unsuccessful (no result or harmful) are heavily skewed towards successful stories. Is this ratio driven by a bunch of drug-addled delusional lunatics, or might there be something interesting going on here?

[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/09/trip-treatment


As I chatted with Tony Bossis and Stephen Ross in the treatment room at N.Y.U., their excitement about the results was evident. According to Ross, cancer patients receiving just a single dose of psilocybin experienced immediate and dramatic reductions in anxiety and depression, improvements that were sustained for at least six months. The data are still being analyzed and have not yet been submitted to a journal for peer review, but the researchers expect to publish later this year.

“I thought the first ten or twenty people were plants—that they must be faking it,” Ross told me. “They were saying things like ‘I understand love is the most powerful force on the planet,’ or ‘I had an encounter with my cancer, this black cloud of smoke.’ People who had been palpably scared of death—they lost their fear. The fact that a drug given once can have such an effect for so long is an unprecedented finding. We have never had anything like it in the psychiatric field.”


"But this can't possibly be true", one might semi-reasonably propose, "because if it was we would surely know about it!"

Incorrect. That is an logical/epistemic error, something that is at the foundation of a large portion of any common disagreement in society, from politics to finance to personal relationships.

As the saying goes: "It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So"."

One reason "because if it was we would surely know about it" should not be taken for granted is in the same article:


“I felt a little like an archeologist unearthing a completely buried body of knowledge,” he said. Beginning in the nineteen-fifties, psychedelics had been used to treat a wide variety of conditions, including alcoholism and end-of-life anxiety. The American Psychiatric Association held meetings centered on LSD. “Some of the best minds in psychiatry had seriously studied these compounds in therapeutic models, with government funding,” Ross said.

Between 1953 and 1973, the federal government spent four million dollars to fund a hundred and sixteen studies of LSD, involving more than seventeen hundred subjects. (These figures don’t include classified research.) Through the mid-nineteen-sixties, psilocybin and LSD were legal and remarkably easy to obtain. Sandoz, the Swiss chemical company where, in 1938, Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD, gave away large quantities of Delysid—LSD—to any researcher who requested it, in the hope that someone would discover a marketable application. Psychedelics were tested on alcoholics, people struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, depressives, autistic children, schizophrenics, terminal cancer patients, and convicts, as well as on perfectly healthy artists and scientists (to study creativity) and divinity students (to study spirituality). The results reported were frequently positive. But many of the studies were, by modern standards, poorly designed and seldom well controlled, if at all. When there were controls, it was difficult to blind the researchers—that is, hide from them which volunteers had taken the actual drug. (This remains a problem.)

By the mid-nineteen-sixties, LSD had escaped from the laboratory and swept through the counterculture. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act and put most psychedelics on Schedule 1, prohibiting their use for any purpose. Research soon came to a halt, and what had been learned was all but erased from the field of psychiatry. “By the time I got to medical school, no one even talked about it,” Ross said.


Thanks for the advice.

And not to be argumentative, but I think it's fair to say that neither you nor anyone else on the planet knows with certainty the full range of possible benefits and detriments to exercise, psilocybin (particularly, in no small part because it is illegal to even formally study for the most part), or anything else for that matter.

Human's might not have a full understanding but there's an entire branch of science (pharmacology) dedicated to studying these things. We know that Alcohol has a detrimental effect on your coordination just like we know Psilocybin has a detrimental effect on your perception of reality. Frankly, I think it's far less strange for someone to show up to work high than tripping.

> We know that Alcohol has a detrimental effect on your coordination just like we know Psilocybin has a detrimental effect on your perception of reality

Incorrect. We do not in fact know that "Psilocybin has a detrimental effect on your perception of reality", as an absolute. This could be said about many scenarios, maybe even most, but the statement at face value implies there are no beneficial effects on perception of reality, in any scenario. Any such claim is flawed both logically and epistemically.

I find my stress reactions are still coloured by a long past sustained period of stress, about twenty years ago. That's despite a life fairly free of it in the intervening period, and no remaining symptoms of that time.

With hindsight I should have walked away long before I started questioning my situation.

Approaching age 50, there are a lot more "I should have walked away sooners" than "I should have stuck with thats" in the rear view mirror.

But I can't say it's generally good advice to walk away frequently because I'm not sure what the outcome of so much walking away would have been.

That's very true. From my mid 50s perspective there's been a couple of big, "I really should have stuck with thats", but mainly "life's too short to put up with that garbage". Which of course makes it really hard to generalise into advice.

what do you do?

I'm roughly half your age, and this has already been my experience. If you want to quit something, you shouldn't put it off.

Not OP, but thanks for this advice. I left a similar situation, and relaxation and re-normalization has been slow to arrive.

I was stressed out for almost five years, due to work and personal tragedies. I was sad and lost my personality. What helped me get back was exercise and meditation. Exercise made me relaxed, and meditation improved my sleep. It was hard, since being depressed means you have no interest to exercise or meditate either.

Consider tricking your brain with chocolate!

After a long break, or perhaps if this will be your first experience doing regular exercise, you might not get the rewarding endorphines after exercising the first couple of times. Consider buying a chocolate bar (darker means more chocolate means less sugar and is better for you) and tell yourself that this chocolate bar is for exercise. Now, after coming back from your exercise, drink a big glass of water and eat a piece of chocolate. You want to eventually eat just a small piece of chocolate after each exercise, but be forgiving to yourself when you end up eating half the chocolate bar after your first exercise despite your good intentions :-)

Do this for a couple of weeks and suddenly you will find yourself forgetting about the chocolate and you are now "hooked" on the endorphines. Be careful not to let your new addiction make yourself break your body. Fx when running it takes up to half a year before your body gets robust enough for doing long and regular stretches. Most importantly: do what it takes to make it a joyful habit!

To this point, does anyone have links to studies or even anecdotal “I did this after a stressful period and my results were positive” write ups?

But why do it man? Would it be worth it if you were found dead at your desk with some unfinished code on your screen? The project would still go on and eventually be finished.

When you're in that stress, adding the stress of finding a new job seems ... overwhelming. Especially how stupid hiring practices are these days. I'm not sure many people would be successful in interviewing with all that stress.

I was in a situation just like yours. I eventually had enough and said either pay me more or I'm leaving. The company decided to go in a different direction, which at the time was scary. It was the best thing that has ever happened to me. It gave me free time to focus on my health, develope a regular exercise routine, and refocus on what matters most in life because it certainly doesn't work. Start saving money so you are prepared, but you cannot continue to work like that. The unknown is scary, but you will come out of it stronger and better off.

You been working hard. I give you permission to leave early today. Spend some time doing the things you love.

Isn't there a possibility of finding another job? Aren't we in a field where there's plenty of work and we shouldn't accept being exploited like this?

In theory, yes. But IMO a job search and all the accompanying tasks (resume updates, cover letter writing, studying for technical interviews, etc) takes a significant investment of time and energy that people don't typically have during a stressful crunch.

Do consider beginning the process of finding a new job.

Happened to me last year so I can empathize. Hope you find a way out.

The worst thng about that, at least for me, was that I actually liked it. I felt alert, productive, full of energy. Things moved gast and I felt on top of them, it was just great.

When things changed, arguably forvthe better, I kind of wanted the previous status back. Took me quite a while to cool down again, yet I still prefer high pressure high speed environments.

Funn thing is, my body felt good too. I was healthy as check ups showned. I even managed to trian more than today. Strange period that was indeed...

There is good stress and bad stress, as I'm coming to find out the hard way.

I also do very well in environments most would call "high stress" - I ran a medium-sized hosting company for many years, being the guy where the buck stopped if things went wrong. Sure there were days that were pretty terrible, but in the end I controlled the entire stack, the people working on that stack, and even which customers I took on. Yes, the work was incredibly hard, fast paced, and sometimes very stressful. But it was enjoyable because I had personal agency to effect change. We have a service going down daily causing escalations at 2am? I can put a couple guys on it and fix it, with a sane solution we all felt proud of. That sort of thing.

In another environment where I in theory had a "nice easy 9-5" with effectively zero external stressors such as customers yelling at me - I was the most stressed out I ever was. The job was entirely internal politics and jockeying for position with all the subterfuge and backstabbing that implies. Effectively being put in charge of outcomes I had practically no real agency over.

That latter time period of stress has likely damaged me long-term, and caused many forms of health problems I would not have expected. It is a long road to recovery from something like that, if it's even fully possible.

I'd say the dividing line is how much control you have. If there is short burst of stress for the amount of work you are sure to be capable of, the stress is nothing. The problem is with the duration and the uncertainty.

There is also a genetic factor: I remember there was a gene (or a base pair?) that is called "worrier or warrior", and if one has the warrior one, one performs worse without stress than with stress whereas the worrier one is the opposite.

Agree on the politics part, the one thing that wears me down the fastest. Hope you recover quickly, it might take I guess so...

I think there's a difference between high pressure environment and experiencing anxiety and stress.

I've done months of work in a high pressure environment where my job and the company itself was on the line and experienced the same as you. For about four months I did nothing but work. I was laser focused, sharp and extremely productive. I was fine. I worked long days, did pretty much nothing else but work and sleep.

I've been looking for that kind of focus and productiveness ever since. It's like a drug.

In case you're wondering.. The company is still around. We hit our deadline and grew from three people to almost 40 since. Still there.

Where there any negative consequences?

Physically and medically, no, thank god. Personality wise, well, let's say my acquired habbit of pushing for a better solution constantly and focus on efficiency didn't sit well with a lot of people. But it's getting better now, still struggling to be as patient as I, somtimes pretending, am now two years later.

>I think this is the most difficult part to get back to normal: The brain brings you in stress mode for no obvious reason. Then you have to reason about it so the stress goes away and you will slowly reset your brain. But I doubt the paths in the brain will ever go away. It will be like a overgrown path in the end but it is still there.

I had this. Try square breathing every time you have a stress trigger. It was almost magical in how quickly it stopped things. Basically telling my body “false alarm, stand down. Repeat, stand down and recalibrate”

Basically: trigger, hold breath, exhale for 4 seconds, inhale for four seconds, repeat if necessary, focus on breath and counting while doing it.

I would say I did this for 2-4mweeks, then didn’t have to anymore. I was well into the “everything is ok s]again” phase when I did this, had done other correctives prior. This was the finishing touch.

> I would say I did this for 2-4mweeks

Every time you had a trigger you did this, and symptoms lifted after 2-4 weeks?


Yup, pretty much exactly that. YMMV of course. For me my triggers were linked to breath anyway. I would have them, and then when I exhaled get tension in my neck and shoulders. Doing the box breathing with an exhale short circuited that. I think it gave my mind a thing to focus on, and helped train my stress response.

For sake of completeness, I did do one other thing. I had periodic worries about financial certainty in my business. But as with stress, I was past the point where this was a realistic concern. Problems could arise, but it would never be instant, total destruction of my business.

So, I wrote down all the things I was worrying about, how realistic they were, how much harm it would cause, and what my responses would be. I then kept thinking about this for a few days. Did a lot to remove worry. Then the breathing combined well with that.

I also found out fodmaps caused me digestive trouble + stress feeling, but the breathing had had its day to day impact before I discovered that.

I should note that it seemed to help very quickly. I could feel the stress stimulus, but then it was blocked. Eventually my stress stimulus reactions adjusted, within 2-3 weeks.

If it doesn’t feel right from the early days, it may not be the thing to solve your problem.

Thanks for this useful additional detail. Debugging medical issues like this is extremely complicated, in no small part because a lack of organized anecdotal stories.

It's unfortunate that we have this widespread mentality of believing something is only true if it is measured and published by "authorities in the field". This belief rests on the axiom that that everything that can be known, is. Axioms like this are not just false but dangerous, and thousands to millions of them are present in humanities' "understanding" of reality, both at the high level "expert" level, as well as at the every day person level.

This is why holiday is so needed. I had a week and a half off work recently and made a conscious effort to just keep myself focused on the holiday and did whatever I felt like at the time, and even though it was fairly active (the drinking bit mainly), I felt like all the small things I kept stressing over didn't matter because I wasn't at home. Having this shift of perception can help you work on ways and identify what is causing stress.

This is kind of what CBT and also exposure therapy is about.. recognizing the pathway and then providing an alternate resolution. At some point you should be able to reduce the stress response to specific triggers to a distant memory. You can certainly treat a phobia and anxiety this way.

>But I doubt the paths in the brain will ever go away. It will be like a overgrown path in the end but it is still there.

While this aligns with current knowledge of neuroscience, provided the 'healthy' paths overgrow the stress-pathways over time (maybe using methods described in CBT or MBSR for example), theoretically the latter ones should become a non-issue over time. Picture a road being built over a footpath. Notwithstanding building that road requires a lot of conscious effort. But it seems doable, both based on scientific data and anecdotal evidence in myself and people around me.

Could you share any resources that helped you get past this? This is basically what my life is like all the time

The meditation app Calm was helpful for me. Meditation has common misconceptions around it, but it's really a tool that helps a person observe their self. That has a calming effect (resets current stress level) and a preventive effect (helps me understand when I'm getting stressed).

There's lots of other meditation apps, so shop around as needed.

Talk therapy is helpful, since it forces you to address the underlying thought processes behind the stress response in an environment that is outside of said process, with someone who can point you to alternate thoughts and beliefs.

In the pure physical response, you can practice breathing exercises or distract the body with another stimulus. A friend of mine who has very high general anxiety uses their phone. Another friend will grab a handful of ice (in a bag to avoid mess) and hold it in their hands until it melts.

I have a comment in this thread about stress that might help you.

About anxiety: talk to a psychologist and keep doing things you like.

I've been thinking lately about the line between feeling "stimulated" and feeling "stressed" by intellectual work. I certainly crave challenging problems but I feel sometimes like that inherently brushes up against stress -- thinking hard about a problem and hitting frustrating roadblocks along the way is more stressful than laying on the beach, but also to me feels much more meaningful.

I worry if the type of person who seeks out stimulating work and having that become a source of stress is risking damaging their health in the longer term -- I always vaguely assumed thinking hard about problems was a net positive for my brain & would keep me mentally active, but perhaps it's worth thinking about finding ways to keep doing this kind of work and at the same time minimizing the impact of the stress it causes.

Maybe aiming to work only when feeling well-rested, or working without deadlines could be things to consider along these lines -- I don't really have a central thesis or solution to stress-free & stimulating work, but these kinds of ideas have been on my mind.

I don't find challenging work particularly stressful. In fact, I usually find them less stressful, because I just try to do my best, and accept the possibility of failure.

The most stressful situation for me is when I have a relatively easy task but that failure is not an option.

For example:

- Climbing a vertical cliff with full protection: challenging but not stressful.

- Walking on a beam on top of a 10 story building: easy but stressful.

Check out the book "The Upside of Stress" by Kelly McGonigal (or watch her TED talk - https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress...). It helped me understand how different sources of stress were affecting me and how I was framing those situations.

There are multiple ways stress can affect you, and only some of them should be viewed negatively when they pop up at inappropriate times. In many cases, stress can be viewed positively as the body warming itself up to take on a challenge, rather than a response to a threat. Those things feel physiologically similar, so your brain doesn't always interpret them correctly. The goal is removing/reframing the stressors that make you feel threatened, and selecting for the ones that make you feel challenged.

I thought quite a bit on the topic of craving and frustration. I wrote an article about it that I could email to you if you would like.

And I learned a thing or two about stress when I studied psychology.

Here are my thoughts (without sources and a bit worse editing as I am on my phone).

> I certainly crave challenging problems.

When crave something I always wonder how it is different vs a cocaine addict craving cocaine. I crave mental stimulation as well, so here are my observations:

1. Psychological addiction is possible.

2. Craving too much mental stimulation could weaken your social ties depending on how you seek it out.

3. You become intellectually sharper at whatever it is you’re stimulated by but in almost all cases not sharper in other areas, even when skills are transferable (unless the areas are really close).

4. As almost always, following a chronic crave does not make you happier. Like scratching an itch doesn’t make you happier.

Being frustrated is not an issue in my opinion. Frustration results from not achieving your goal while you believe you should still be able to progress but somehow you don’t. There is no stress there as you can simply do something else. Take the option of doing something else away and then you do have stress (e.g. this wasn’t a frustrating hobby problem in your free time but a problem on your job that is making your company lose $10k per hour).

> I worry if the type of person who seeks out stimulating work and having that become a source of stress is risking damaging their health in the longer term

Only if it is chronic. Read about the HPA axis. It proposes a biological explanation for depression through stress. Also, burnout is symptomatically very similar to depression (I am on mobile cannot find the source now, but any decent search engine can help).

> I always vaguely assumed thinking hard about problems was a net positive for my brain & would keep me mentally active

In this particular case the exercise analogy works. If you do anything physical (or mental) that is beyond your capacity or stamina but you somehow are forced to go through with it, then you will experience stress.

In closing only chronic stress is a bad thing since we can recuperate from temporary stress. Aka we simply need the ability to rest and the ability to recover.

On a short-term basis, stress is a good motivator to some.

Related to all of this (in an unusual way) is the self-determination theory of motivation. What you may see here is that in my examples people have little to no autonomy and that results in stress.

> When crave something I always wonder how it is different vs a cocaine addict craving cocaine.

Lately, I've been trying to give myself plenty of boredom time. I still fail at it a lot, but I try to do most things with purpose now: I don't listen to music just because, for example, instead I decide I want to listen to music and then sit down to do just that. I feel I enjoy it a lot more this way! I also don't idly listen while travelling or walking anymore. I go for walks almost every day now and I enjoy the quiet as much as the exercise. I also try not to idly read stuff online (especially on my phone). I definitely still fail at this, but slowly I'm improving. Its better to spend half an hour bored than mindlessly reading stuff. There's been plenty of articles here about how boredom is good for your brain, after all.

Having said that, I do find it very difficult to do work that isn't mentally stimulating.

> On a short-term basis, stress is a good motivator to some.

When I was in my early twenties, I worked very very well under stress. Having a lot of pressure pushed me harder and I got a lot done in a short space of time. As I get older, though, I find that the stress bleeds over to the rest of my life and I'm less able to just shrug it off or channel it to get work done, so now too much stress slows me down instead, and seems to negatively effect my life and health in other ways instead. A small bit of stress is fine, of course, but chronic stress is, I believe, very unhealthy.

Anecdotally, I had a ton of health issues a few years ago that I believe (and the doctors said its possible when I asked about it) that they were all a side effect of my few years as a startup founder. Again, anecdotally, I've known other startup founders (including my current boss) who have had probably-stress-induced health problems. Its an aspect of startups people rarely talk about or warn you about.

I feel like I'm almost reading my own writing here. I have very similar experiences.

> Its an aspect of startups people rarely talk about or warn you about.

I agree, and it should be talked about more. The same is true for other high performance jobs (e.g. investment banking or consulting), where high performance means working a lot of hours.

I also think Ycombinator could improve on this as I remember Sam Altman saying during a Startup School lecture (paraphrased): if you get a burnout, fix it. I felt like he implied to just make it work somehow, it doesn't matter how.

In fairness, most of these people aren't mental health professionals and somehow had to deal with these things themselves as well and they are simply sharing their views on how they dealt with it. What I wonder is if they reflect on the idea that some people that this as advice and moreover take it to heart. Taking a personal strategy of someone else to heart seems quite dangerous to me.

Its not just mental health that stress affects, but physical health too. I had stomach problems for a long time that seem to have been caused by stress and went away when I eliminated much of the stress. It was never concretely confirmed that it was stress related, but my doctors didn’t object to the idea either.

I absolutely agree that taking other peoples personal strategies without making sure they will work for you is unhealthy.

Thank you so much for such a detailed reply -- I would definitely be interested in reading your article! My email is in my bio.

I definitely agree with the insight that having options can reduce the feeling of stress, and that's a great way to articulate that point -- a hobby project with options to take a break and do something else versus a work scenario where you have no choice but to push forward and often times money or reputation is on the line.

The analogy with physical exercise is a great point and hopefully a helpful way to think about mental exertion as well. In the context of avoiding chronic stress, I wonder how an average 9-5 software job compares to the physical equivalent. For example, if you have a job where you are on your feet all day but mostly just walking around (maybe like a park ranger), resting that night & resuming the job the next day is usually enough. But you probably couldn't play in the NFL 5 days a week & would need more rest in between than just a good night's sleep.

So if we look at a software engineer's week, is it more like the park ranger or the NFL player? I assume most knowledge workers don't exert 100% of their mental energy all day long, so maybe it's somewhere in between a park ranger and an NFL player. Perhaps after a particular taxing day, knowledge workers should think about that exertion more like an NFL game and might need a full day or two to recuperate. I guess work schedules sometimes make this kind of rest schedule tough to do in practice.

It could be worth trying to monitor exertion levels so that it stays in the zone of temporary stress and doesn't become chronic stress, which is when it becomes really harmful as you've pointed out.

I appreciate all of your insight & I plan to do a bit more research on some of the topics you've mentioned here.

> So if we look at a software engineer's week, is it more like the park ranger or the NFL player?

First time I'm thinking about this, but there were a couple of things that immediately came to mind.

1. Doing something you know (you have processes and habits and strategies) vs. doing something new.

2. Doing something that is difficult (I suppose fundamental AI research is an example) vs. doing something that is easy (prototyping a CRUD app for 100 users).

Here is how I came up with these thoughts.

For 1: doing something I know vs. something new is a huge difference. And I think you need a higher sleep quality for doing something new as it aids with learning.

For 2: My family is mostly blue collar. Some of them have huge muscles and some of them didn't. The huge muscle people had a way easier time doing their blue collar jobs. However, most of them got back issues eventually and I couldn't relate that to their muscle size.

My advice would be to use your brain for this stimulating work as much as you like, and manage any stress response separately, that is, get plenty of exercise, sunlight , nutrition, and as a bonus look into some kind of mindfulness routine particularly where you practice being aware of where stressful physical responses can be perceived and mental patterns that can release them, after all anything you practice doing with your mind will affect its physical formation in one way or another. Plenty of brilliant 90 year olds out there who never stopped their minds from working.

It would be helpful to tag articles about animal model studies and early stage drug trials on HN, similar to [pdf] and [video] content; would tone down the clickbait/sensationalism levels without the need to modify the submission title.

Like this novelty Twitter account https://mobile.twitter.com/justsaysinmice which points out hilarity of sensational headlines that are based on distant experiments on mice.

Indeed, seeing it mentioned in another article was one of the inspirations for my comment.

On another note, does anyone know how they actually perform (f)MRI on mice?

My body also changes due to stress. I get rashes on my hand if I get stressed for more than 2 days at a stretch.

This happened to me when my daughter used to wake in the middle of the night causing me to jump out of deep sleep. Doctor was useless and said I must be coming into contact with things.

When my sleep was fixed, it went away. Then went though a short period of it happening again, and the rash came back.

In general contact eczema or a food intolerance would be the cause. Lack of sleep really would be unusual - I've never heard of it (though I'm not a medical person). I think slagging off your doc for making reasonable conclusions is unfair. Debugging ASM has got to be an utter picnic compared to troubleshooting humans in a short time-slot.

You're right, it is extremely unusual and I shouldn't be speaking in this way about my doctor. They do in fact do great work for the majority of cases.

Out of interest, what's ASM?

ASM = assembler (assembly code; very low-level programming).

Nice reply, agreed that docs are a great bunch, upvoted.

ASM is assembly.

IIRC the repair/replace cycles of the body including the skin are affected by sleep patterns, because of different hormone levels and other changes between wake & sleep states, which might indirectly be why your skin suffers from stress (because we know stress can significantly affect patterns and effectiveness of sleep). The immune system can be affected also.

I get mild eczema and sometimes have periods of insomnia, I've noticed not sleeping enough for a few days to be something that often seems linked to a break-out of raw itchy patches.

Also rubbing is often a subconscious "tick" while stressed, so you may be putting extra strain on the skin that way too?

Same, dyshidrotic eczema is the closest thing I've found to what mine looks like.

Exact same thing here! Happens on the sides of my fingers during times of high stress. Looks like dyshidrodic eczema and leaves tiny red dots when it goes away.

is it like a bunch of purplish splines that cover the arms and chest?

Nope, tiny little fluid filled blisters, about the size of a ballpoint pen nib, that cluster under the skin. I've only ever had it on my hands.

I've gotten rashes on my hand too, but I thought it was an allergic reaction to some unknown thing in my environment. Perhaps it could've been stress? But I don't recall being stressed.

I don't get rashes, but I have noticed the signs of me being overstressed typically include itchiness for some reason, almost always down my back.

If you don’t mind sharing - what kind of rashes?

They are small bumps (lots) which are not red but has same color as my skin. They retain water in them. They fade away in a week with dead skins at those spots. In two weeks they leave no trace.

Dishydrosis. Weird how many people mention this ITT. Must be very common stress marker, with seemingly not much research done on it.

Not OP, but I've had this happen to me during a very stressful period of my life.

In my case, small patches of skin went really dry and itchy, and eventually fell off, like dead skin after a sunburn.

My dad had it on his scalp once too. He had a few circular patches (~3cm) with total hair loss, which eventually grew back.

Neither of us had that happen again.

I've had occasions where I get small patches on my hands where the skin dries and cracks - I had no idea what was causing them and wondered if it might be stress. I was pretty sure it wasn't anything physical.

My GP simply recommended using superglue to seal the cracks up and that did help!

From https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317631.php

"It is also possible for emotional stress to trigger an outbreak of hives. There can be a number of hormonal or chemical changes that occur in response to stress.

These changes can trigger blood vessels to expand and leak, causing red and swollen patches of skin."

> It is also possible for emotional stress to trigger an outbreak of hives.

No doubt, stress has physiological effects, but so does laughter and excitement. Having stress is a normal part of being a human. In reasonable doses it's fine.

I've always found it ironic that one of the best antidotes for day to day stress is to be in a situation where you get "stressed" in a completely different way... (the main factor in the 'positive' stress situations for me being in fairly complete control, confidence in your own abilities and requirement to focus on the matter in hand for a few hours).

Good observation.

yeap .. I see this in myself occasionally and so far they seem to coincide with periods of stress

Professor Sapolsky has talked about this in a somewhat different context as well, about what it does during childhood development. Really tragic actually.

re: childhood development - Arguably the more interesting work on this is how particularly intense acute periods of stress that would register as "trauma" predispositions an individual to things like much higher rates of ischemic heart failure, diabetes, and other health conditions that we might not typically relate to trauma.

Then there's all the standard stuff you might expect, emotional dysregulation into adulthood, drug and alcohol abuse, suicidal behaviour, etc.

See Dr. Vincent Felitti's Adverse Childhood Experience studies for more info.

Don't forget his book "Why Zebras don't get ulcers" [0]


Any links?

The Great Courses has a non-free 24 * 30 min Coure "Stress and the Brain" given by Sapolsky .

Is the summary accurate? It says "A new study sheds light on how the brain changes as a result of chronic stress", but the rest of the article only mentions acute stress.


It's not uncommon to see such basic flaws or misinterpretations in various articles.

Stress is such a stupid thing. Here in London, you're almost celebrated for having a stressful job. Neither does it improve productivity in the long term, nor does it support a healthy life. I wished more managers would understand that.

There are some important dimensions of stress that often get lumped together in a way that can be misleading.

First, there is good and bad stress -- eustress and distress.

Second, there is acute and chronic stress.

This study addresses acute distress -- like a car accident. As they say, it is hard to produce this in a lab study (for ethical reasons, one supposes).

I believe that stress does cause a tremendous amount of damage to the brain. I'm glad to see others share the same ideas. It may not be proven whether damage is permanent or not. But it's not something that can be left alone.

Am busy doing the Win Hof method. From what I understand, norepinephrine and particularly epinephrine release are desired goals of the cold exposure part his method as they suppress release of pro inflammatory cytokines.

*Wim, for those who might want to google.

Auto correct playing it’s vital part ;) Thank-you

The article mentions that they hope that this will be useful when understanding 'pathological hyperactivity of the noradrenaline system, which is associated with anxiety and panic disorders'. For those interested, I wrote a paper on how the fall of Norepinephrine during REM dreaming can help diagnose the precise way to reduce this stress: https://psyarxiv.com/k6trz Worked for me.

It would be interesting to know if there is any connection to PTSD. I think that rapidly created connections between different brain regions could be plausible explanation.

So they stimulated norepinephrine release in rats in an fMRI machine and they found it increased "activity" in sensory processing and the amygdala. Presumably it would increase "activity" in "higher" regions of the brain, except those only exist to a limited extent in rats.

For most humans, the question about stress is, "what is the effect of chronic stress?" which this paper did not answer. I'm sure it was still a good study, largely because it's demonstrating concrete mechanisms for things we think are happening anyway, but I can't confirm that because it's behind a paywall, like most publicly-funded research.

To someone who is not a neuroscientist, what does this do? Yes the regions are rewired, but aren't they rewired all the time anyway?

From the intro of this article:

Activity in the amygdala and networks that process sensory stimuli increased.

The amygdala is a part of the brain that will dictate reactions to crisis before you can consciously process it. It's called "amygdala hijack" and is responsible for people doing things like leaping into a river to save a drowning child before they fully register the child consciously, so they find themselves in a river going "Why the hell am I here?" and then realize there's a child drowning in front of them.

This is potentially dangerous. Vietnam vets and others with PTSD sometimes strongly overreact to stimuli that aren't actually a signal of a problem. For example, waking a Vietnam vet can get you assaulted before they realize you aren't a danger to them, sort of like that scene where Wolverine skewers Rogue because she wakes him from a nightmare, though usually not that dramatic. (I have heard of people winding up in the ER though.)


From an article written for lay people

Chronic Stress Increases the Risk of Mental Illness

Stress Changes the Brain's Structure.

Stress Kills Brain Cells.

Stress Shrinks the Brain.



They may not be rewired in a helpful way.

I suspect that in cases of moderate stress this mechanism is adaptive.

And in extreme cases it is catastrophic.

Paul Tough's book, "How Children Succeed" [1] has a great section on how mother rats (called dams) can significantly counteract the stress of their offspring (called pups):

"Scientists in rat labs are always picking up baby rats to examine them or weigh them, and one day about ten years ago, researchers in Meaney’s lab noticed a curious thing: When they put the pups back in the cages after handling them, some dams would scurry over and spend a few minutes licking and grooming their pups. Others would just ignore them. When the researchers examined the rat pups, they discovered that this seemingly insignificant practice had a distinct physiological effect. When a lab assistant handled a rat pup, researchers found, it produced anxiety, a flood of stress hormones, in the pup. The dam’s licking and grooming counteracted that anxiety and calmed down that surge of hormones.

Meaney and his researchers were intrigued, and they wanted to learn more about how licking and grooming worked and what kind of effect it had on the pups. So they kept watching the rats, spending long days and nights with their faces pressed up against the Plexiglas, and after many weeks of careful observation, they made an additional discovery: different mother rats had different patterns of licking and grooming, even in the absence of their pups' being handled. So Meaney’s team undertook a new experiment, with a new set of dams, to try to quantify these patterns. This time, they didn’t handle any of the pups. They just closely observed each cage, an hour at a time, eight sessions a day, for the first ten days of the pups' lives. Researchers counted every instance of maternal licking and grooming. And after ten days, they divided the dams into two categories: the ones that licked and groomed a lot, which they labeled high LG, and the ones that licked and groomed a little, which they labeled low LG.


The researchers ran test after test, and on each one, the high-LG offspring excelled: They were better at mazes. They were more social. They were more curious. They were less aggressive. They had more self-control. They were healthier. They lived longer. Meaney and his researchers were astounded. What seemed like a tiny variation in early mothering style, so small that decades of researchers hadn’t noticed it, created huge behavioral differences in mature rats, months after the licking and grooming had taken place. And the effect wasn't just behavioral; it was biological too. When Meaney’s researchers examined the brains of the adult rats, they found significant differences in the stress-response systems of the high—LG and low-LG rats, including big variations in the size and shape and complexity of the parts of the brain that regulated stress."

[1] http://www.amazon.com/How-Children-Succeed-Curiosity-Charact...

This is so interesting, thank you for sharing. I was recently thinking about affection in my own early childhood - I grew up with loving parents (and grandparents) who were happy to hug me etc. The only 'weird' thing that stands out in terms of affection offered by my family is that my mom was apparently afraid to hold me for the first few days after my birth - I was her first child and she was worried she'd drop or hurt me in some way, so my grandmother took care of me for that short period of time instead.

The problem was that _I_ always refused affection as a kid. I never came for hugs or kisses or anything, and when my parents tried to hug me it always felt really awkward for me. The only thing I'd come to my parents for would be back scratches, which I loved. I didn't get a feeling of affection from the scratches, they just felt physically pleasant and relaxing.

I wonder how, if at all, kids who refuse affection are impacted later in life. I _think_ I grew up to be a fairly well adjusted person. If I try to find something 'wrong' with me the only thing I can point to is some difficulty in relating to negative emotions in others. I guess I'd be very curious to see any studies about the flip-side - eg how many baby rats are resistant to the 'licking and grooming' offered by their mothers, and how are they impacted later in life?

We know human touch is important and that a lack of it will cause severe psychological problems. The evidence is from Russian orphans with kids who were never held or touched. There is also evidence with monkeys and the wire doll mothers. This falls under the wider psychological theory Attachment and need for the infant to have its needs met which is very dependent on the parent. Attachment is probably a life long thing too.

As kids develop they shift from being parent oriented to peer oriented.

There are some cultural aspects as well, you see this largely expressed in greetings and maybe extended family interactions.

As for a rat pup or infant refusing affection it is a warning sign for autism spectrum disorder for sure.

Even though I've jokingly been told I may be on the spectrum due to my difficulty relating to some emotions, I was under the impression that autistic children usually have speech delays and don't really want human attention, which definitely wasn't the case for me - I just didn't want human _affection_ as a kid, but was perfectly happy to talk and bug my parents to play games with me.

Either way I fear I'm going down a path of the kind of self-analysis that is best left to a professional, so I'll leave it at that and enjoy feeling well-adjusted even if it's all an illusion :D

This is really interesting in terms of such an acute chemical change causing such a systemic alteration in connectivity. I can imagine if you are under stressful conditions constantly you can't truly function as these changes are constantly occurring. You could see how this would lead to ptsd, depression, other neurological conditions.

Am I the only one relating this to PUBG, and that moment when you're low on health, with a torn police vest, 30 bullets left in AKM, no compensator, no meds and a whole squad taking the stairs up to come rip you apart?

> "However, it is not possible to directly examine this theory in people, because noradrenaline release cannot be selectively manipulated."

This is exactly what ADHD medication like Vyvanse or Adderall does.

How I feel when reading an article about how bad stress is for you:


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