Is Our Stress Altering the Brain Cells of Others?

2018-0220 Stress Changes Cells

I was standing in line at my favorite coffee shop. The guy in front of me seemed to be having a bad start to his day.

It’s not what he said, it’s how he said it. He ordered a coffee and croissant. “Ordered” being the operative word. Louder than necessary. Leaning with wide arms on the counter, taking up the entire space. An angry exasperated correction to the server when she pulled out the wrong tray of pastries. (Turns out she was serving up another person’s order, not his.)

His aggressive demeanor prompted me to take an extra step back and cautiously wait my turn. I could feel my body sensing unknown danger. My attention turned from admiring the jewel-colored pastries in the display case to watching him and being curiously alert.

Once he received his order and moved away, I could see a visible exhale from the two women behind the counter. We made eye contact and exchanged strained smiles like we had escaped something bad. 

I don’t know anything about this guy, yet he left a distinct impression on my morning. Someone who seems to be under a lot of stress, and maybe doesn’t know what to do with it, I thought. Wonder how things will go the rest of the day if his early morning is already having this kind of negative effect on the casual people in his vicinity.

How does being in contact with someone who is stressed affect us? Certainly, there is my first reaction—potential danger, be on alert, be prepared to take action.

What if stress is more consistent and close than an inadvertent passing at the coffee shop? 

Over the last ten years I have coached military veterans through two non-profit programs, and I have heard first-hand stories of the psychological issues that the caregivers of veterans with PTSD sometimes manifest. The VA recognizes the risk that caregivers may also come to exhibit signs of PTS themselves.

As neuroscientists continue to explore our brain and how it is affected by our environment, and therefore how it affects how we show up, we may find that stress has a more far-reaching impact than we thought, far beyond having a ‘bad stress day.’

A team of neuroscientists at University of Calgary have recently shown that stress in one mouse may actually change the neurological structure of another. This new study  indicates that the brain cells of a ‘non-stressed’ mouse physically change when in close contact with a ‘stressed’ mouse partner.

From an evolutionary perspective, we can surmise that sharing the stress helps alert others to something the stressed mouse perceives is a danger to survival. Seeing that this stress warning embeds itself as changes at the brain cell level opens up many questions.

Research on mice certainly cannot be extrapolated directly to humans. Our brains are incredibly complex, unique, and evolving structures.

It is already accepted that an inability to manage stress is linked to higher risk of heart and auto-immune problems. If the University of Calgary research holds true over more study, we may find that, in humans too, our stress causes the brain cells of others close to us to change.

  • Will we someday search our family history for stress, like we do DNA analysis now?
  • Will we inherit irrational fears and anxiety?
  • Will stress reduction practices someday be as ubiquitous as the annual flu shot?
  • Will lavender spray (known for its calming effect) be in every mother’s purse, like we carry hand sanitizer now? 

Another interesting finding in this study—the female mice who had been exposed to stress were able to reverse some of the stress effects through social interactions with unstressed mice. Social interaction did not have the same effect on stressed male mice.

I wonder if the popular “mommies” group that gathers late mornings at the coffee shop is a human manifestation of what the researchers found helped stressed female mice?

What is your own awareness of stress in your life?

Have you noticed how your stress impacts others?


Photocredit: Pixabay/ShiftGraphiX/3087474_1920 (CC0)




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