Category Archives: Stress Solutions

The Traumatic Stress of Harvey Can Have Unrecognized Long-Term Consequences

Psychologists well understand the consequences of trauma and forms of severe stress. And, even though they may not have all the words to describe what happens to them, almost every person who is intimately involved with a crisis, such as Harvey, knows the effects – “first-hand.” Property loss, health consequences for some, environmental devastation, and likely changes in schedule and lifestyle are just some of the more physical consequences. The
dollar cost of Harvey will be staggering.

However, the emotional impact will be far greater and impossible to place a “price tag” on. There is no recovering a lifetime of memories when your family photobooks or your mom’s china or your child’s school records are swept away by floodwater. I remember friends and family digging through the stench after Katrina’s floodwaters finally subsided, looking for anything that might have survived. Some of us can set that aside and not let the grief and
traumatic memories of the losses evolve into depression and anxiety-related disorders. Others are not that resilient.

But, there is another less known and understood consequence of trauma that I want to talk about today. Research I found when I was writing Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms indicated that an unnamed group of victims can be the unborn children of women who are pregnant in the midst of a crisis. Medical historians long ago identified that war and natural disasters have significant effects on the children born to women who were pregnant during such events. The van Os study (British Journal of Psychiatry 1998) revealed an increase in schizophrenia among children born to women who were pregnant during the May 1940 invasion of the Netherlands. Laplante et al (Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2008) explored the cognitive and linguistic functions of 5-year-old children whose mothers had been stranded in a Quebec ice storm. There are several important findings from this study: (1) Children of mothers who experienced high stress during the severe ice storm scored significantly lower on Full Scale IQ and on scales that measure verbal abstract reasoning and information as compared to children of mothers who experienced moderate or low stress during the same natural disaster. (2) The study suggests that timing of the exposure to the natural disaster is important, with poorer outcomes associated with first and second trimester exposure. (3) The negative effects associated with prenatal stress were seen at 2 years, 5 ½ years, and 8 ½ years of age, indicating relatively long-lasting effects.

Countless articles are being published in international journals on this topic leading the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a landmark warning on January 1, 2012. In their report entitled “The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Adversity and Toxic Stress,” they reviewed converging lines of scientific evidence that illustrate how different types of stress can leave a lasting mark on a child’s developing brain and long-term health. The American Academy of Pediatrics’ position paper acknowledges that the period of time from conception through early childhood is critical. They include prenatal stress in their definition of toxic stress and say that children exposed to early stressful conditions are more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers, manage stress poorly, and tangle with the law.

And, while we know how damaging natural disasters are, we do not really know how to mitigate the consequences to people. I hope people can at least be conscious of the effects and work on solutions

Why Stress Causes Us to Overeat

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Researchers have long linked weight gain to stress, and according to an American Psychological Association survey, about one-fourth of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale. Stress eating or “emotional eating” seems to be triggered almost automatically when stressed. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan indicated that when levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, are up because you are stressed, you eat more snack foods.

We increase fat, salt, sugar, and caffeine intake. • We skip meals regularly. • We eat more fast food, mindlessly munching. • We tend to seek out foods that we consider “comfort food.” • We drink less water. • We may drink more alcohol. • And, some who still smoke, will smoke more cigarettes.

Stress does not always cause us to overeat or to eat more high-fat, sugary comfort-foods. The first reaction of our brain and body to high stress is to shut down appetite. The hypothalamus produces corticotropin-releasing hormone, which suppresses appetite. The brain then sends a message to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine or adrenaline. This triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response and – once again – eating is put on hold.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, this does not last if the stress persists, then the adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol immediately increases your appetite. As long as the cortisol levels remain elevated, the fat and sugar cravings continue.

Women are more likely than men to turn to food, while men are more likely to turn to alcohol and smoking. In 2007, an ingenious study in Britain showed that people who responded to stress with high cortisol levels were more likely to snack in response to daily hassles in their regular lives than low cortisol responders.

WebMD offers some interesting thoughts on breaking the stress eating cycle and enjoy a healthy diet.

  • Prepare your brain and body in advance of a known period of stress and you will be better able to handle stress when it happens. Keep your emotions in better balance by eating regularly every four or five hours.
  • Eat Complex Carbohydrates, like oatmeal, bran, brown rice, vegetables, beans, and fruits. Complex carbs help your brain synthesize serotonin.
  • Eat healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, nut butters, and olive oil.
  • Recognize the stressful event or thoughts that trigger the urge to eat. Stop first and decide if you are really hungry. Remind yourself when you last ate.
  • Try a little Mindfulness.
  • Always keep healthy snacks available wherever you go. Small packets of nuts or trail mix. • Eat good protein in the morning and complex carbs during the day.
  • Please do not forget your small piece of dark chocolate (72% cocoa is good).
  • Have cut up celery and carrots in the refrigerator.
  • Avoid driving or walking past snacks and vending machines.
  • Put that music on and do some breathing!


One Way to Calculate Your Daily Stress Level

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Think about your day today or any day. Is anything causing you to be upset or worried? Are you  working on a timeline, for example, or have a deadline? Is today one of those days that you have too many things on your list? Check the list below and assign a value based on the duration of the aggravation or situation. If the situation or problem lasts less than an hour, assign a number value of 1. If it lasts for several hours, give it a 3. If the situation is chronic, assign a value of 5. Continue reading

Can a Single Stressful Event Cause Long-term Effects in the Brain?

Dr. Daniela Kaufer and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that Chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function. (Molecular Psychiatry 2014) Kaufer’s research proposes a mechanism that could explain some changes in the brains of people with PTSD. She found that PTSD patients develop a stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and the amygdala (the seat of the brain’s fight or flight response). And, they develop a lower connectivity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which moderates our responses. For the most part, it has been generally accepted that brain changes as a function of stress are based on repeated or chronic stress. Continue reading

Technology to the Rescue

It’s about Time! Instead of technology increasing our stress, new apps are coming out that aim at helping us stay healthy and combat stress. In the last operating system upgrade (iOS 10) for MAC iPhones and iWatches, there is attention paid to reminders and apps that remind you to breathe or spend a few minutes of Mindfulness time. Continue reading

Are you one of those people who routinely over commits yourself?

If you are one of us who says “Yes” every time someone asks if you want to do something, then you are your own worst enemy. A primary cause of stress is feeling the pressure of time. The more we try to cram into a day, the more we become aware of how time can fly by or how much longer it takes to do something than we thought it would. Continue reading

Stress Linked to Increased Risk of Dementia

Chronic stress has become not only a #1 health risk , but also a major way of life for too many of us. If you are honest with yourself, the risk of dementia is more frightening than a heart attack. We can survive a heart attack but once dementia sets in, there is no escape – to date. The important link for all us neuroscientists is how anxiety, fear, and stress affect the brain. Continue reading

Two New Studies on Stress May Surprise

Stress is contagious. Research from St. Louis University suggests that other people’s anxiety and behavior may be harmful to your health. The negative effects of stress, such as increased levels of cortisol, can be triggered by merely observing another person who is acting stressed. Empathy – usually thought of as a good attribute – can be a drain if you watch someone else get negative feedback. Continue reading

Reducing the Room’s Temperature can Increase the Quality of Your Sleep

You probably know how important good sleep is to your overall health. Not only getting enough sleep but the QUALITY of your sleep is the key factor in your protection against many diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. A 2010 study published in the Annals of Epidemiology showed that regularly getting less than six hours of sleep per night can lead to a higher risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For their study, researchers asked participants to fill out questionnaires about their health and sleep patterns. The researchers analyzed six years’ worth of data from just under 1,500 participants, all between the ages of 35 and 79. They identified several ways to improve the quality of sleep. One of the most surprising findings was the effects of room temperature on the quality of sleep.

It is best to sleep cool. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to sleep when it gets too hot? That’s because the core temperature of your body needs to be cool in order for you to sleep well. The optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer than that, and your body may not be able to cool as much as it needs to for truly restful sleep. Sleeping cool may even help relieve insomnia.

A body of research is finding that regulating sleep temperature may bring some relief to sufferers of insomnia. According to Dr. Cameron Van den Heuvel, a research fellow involved in a 2009 study of body temperature and sleep performed by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Sleep Research: “Temperature regulation is a significant factor in each of the two types of insomnia. The difference is when the insomnia occurs. People with sleep onset insomnia have difficulty initiating sleep at the beginning of the night, taking two to four hours each night in the worst cases; while people with sleep maintenance insomnia fall asleep easily but have trouble staying asleep, waking up multiple times during the night… In both types of insomnia, sleep is not restful and sufferers are tired during the day.”

Studies of sleep onset insomniacs show that they have consistently warmer core body temperature immediately before initiating sleep, when compared with normal healthy adults. This results in a state of heightened arousal that prevents them from falling asleep when they go to bed, probably because they have to wait for their bodies to lose the heat that’s keeping them awake. We’re only talking about a half to one degree but that small temperature change can result in significant differences in arousal between insomniacs and people without sleeping problems.”

If you are slow to fall asleep at night, try cooling down your room.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Tips for Reducing Stress

Anyone who has ever suffered from chronic or moderately severe acute stress knows that you feel it physically just as much as you feel it mentally. And, it is accepted that one’s overall health can impact stress levels, both negatively and positively. In keeping with the focus on the positive, here are a couple of diet tips for reducing stress.

  1. Keep a healthy, balanced diet. A good rule of thumb is to eat for your heart. When you’re experiencing stress, your heart is experiencing it right along with you, which means that over time it can actually put your heart at risk. Keep your heart in good shape by eating a lowered fat diet with plenty of lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. This will help lower your blood pressure, which will help keep your heart from thumping hard when you start to feel stress.
  1. Eat to actually reduce stress. When stressed, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, which increases sugar in the bloodstream. This is what makes us crave unhealthy food when we’re stressed. However, giving your body simple carbohydrates like candy and white bread only gives your body a quick burst of sugars, so any good effects won’t last. That’s why you need to focus on complex carbohydrates with lots of fiber, like whole grains and sweet potatoes. The carbohydrates in those foods will prompt your brain to produce more serotonin, a hormone that relaxes us, but the nutrients and positive effects will stay with you much longer.
  1. Reduce caffeine intake and increase water intake. Too much caffeine can start a vicious cycle. The more you ingest caffeine, the more you feel you need to ingest caffeine. Coffee will give you a quick boost, but the fatigue will catch up, which causes you to drink even more coffee, even though that fatigue or an inability to focus is a signal that your body needs rest. Excessive caffeine consumption can actually lead to lapses in concentration and a decrease in our overall ability to be effective. So the work becomes harder because we’re less efficient. Caffeine is a substance that naturally increases blood pressure anyway, so you pile that on top of the effects of stress, and that’s a lot of strain for your heart.
  1. Most of us drink too little water. It is a known fact that we lose cognitive efficiency as our body becomes more dehydrated. Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills (Adan, J Am Coll Nutr, 2012). The research data on this topic can be somewhat contradictory but everyone knows drinking water is good for you. For example, if the mild dehydration is due to physical exercise, that is actually good for long-term and working memory. There is also evidence that executive functions are better preserved. And, drinking more water helps keep our weight down.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, Oct 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Stress As Positive – 2

Last month we started a review of recent research that suggests that stress has some positive benefits. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist, is researching this topic for a new book she is writing. McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. Among the studies discussed last month were the U of Wisconsin study of 29,000 respondents and a larger epidemiological study of nearly 186 million. In general people who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

In a prospective study, Dr. Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed 850 people (34 to 93) living in Detroit, asking about major stressful events in the last year and how much time they spent in the last year actively helping others. Obituaries and death records were then tracked over the next 5 years. Dr. Poulin’s team found that every major stress event increased an individual’s risk of death by 30%. But high rates of helping others reduced the stress-induced mortality risk. So, the authors concluded that helping others is a possible antidote to the negative effects of stress.

Looking more directly at how stress can be positive, a 2013 study out of UC Berkeley showed that moderate stress can lead to cell growth in a rat’s brain learning centers. Adult rats were stressed by being immobilized in a small space for 3 hours. Two weeks later, the rats were given a fear-conditioning test. The immobilized rats showed an increased level of stress hormone corticosterone (rate equivalent to cortisol in humans) as well as an increased growth of neural stem cells in the hippocampus.

To put the information into better context: these studies do not really prove that stress is positive. They do show the benefits of doing things to manage one’s stress, such as helping others and how that can lead to positive benefits that can counter the negative effects of a major stressful life event. Some of the studies, such as the 2013 UC Berkeley study, are defining “stress” slightly differently from the host of studies that relate the health dangers of stress. The big difference is those studies that associate stress with health risk are looking at chronically high levels of stress not a 2 or 3 hour learning session, which is considered mildly stressful because any thinking increases cortisol. But, since we cannot go around all the time without thinking, it seems best to think of mild stress as a positive and chronic stress as harmful as what you need to manage by balancing it with relaxation, exercise, sleep, meditation, and many good works for others.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, September 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Stress as Positive

Recent research suggests that stress has some positive benefits. This should not be a surprise if you realize that a big part of being human is having a nervous system that allows us to use and manage our stress. After all, would we even be able to exist without a “flight or fight” reaction? Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist who translates academic research into practical strategies for health, is looking at the “upside of stress.” Her example, however, of how stress benefits daredevils like aerialist Nik Wallenda and Evel Knievel, may go a bit too far in the opposite direction.

In his career, Evel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. He suffered more than 433 bone fractures his career. Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, aged 69. I am not sure that adrenalin junkies are good examples of perceiving stress positively. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the inverted U relationship between anxiety and performance where too little and too much anxiety interferes with performance but some anxiety (or in this case – stress) can be helpful.

McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. McGonigal reviewed several studies that suggested stress may actually be correlated with longevity – if a person does not view it as a negative. Researchers at the U. of Wisconsin in Madison asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and to rate how much (a little, moderate amount, or a lot) they believed this stress influenced their health. Public death records were reviewed for the next 8 years to see how many of the subjects died. People who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a lot of impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

Another study looked at the perception that stress affects health and its relation to mortality. 33.7% of nearly 186 million Americans believe that stress affects their health a lot. Those people who reported a lot of stress and a belief in the high impact of stress on their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death according to Keller et al (Health Psychol. 2012 Sept; 31(5):677-84).

Next month, we will look at other studies that suggest it is better to view stress as “mostly harmless” like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, August 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).