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How to change your brain’s stress response

Shannon Harvey

I’d like to tell you the story of an apprehensive pack of lab rodents that have been able to teach us something profound about stress. If you’ve seen my film The Connection you will have heard a little about these animals, which were studied by scientists at the National Centre for Biological Sciences.  

In a series of studies, the Indian researchers took lab rats and restrained them for two hours a day, for ten days to stress them out. The scientists observed that the animals started acting anxiously even when they weren’t being constrained. When they were placed in a maze, they would prefer dark corners rather than getting out exploring bright open spaces.   Have a look at these videos, which were given to me by the researchers. The first video shows a normal rat, which hasn’t been stressed. When it hears a loud noise it continues it’s usual behavior sniffing around.  

 

The second video shows a rat when has been put thought the stress protocol. When it hears the loud noise, the rat freezes in fear.  

 

When the scientists looked at the brains of the anxious rats, the part of the brain responsible for the stress response called the amygdala, had gotten bigger. They continued stressing the animals out for two weeks and then stopped. What was interesting is that three weeks later they observed that the rats were still acting anxiously despite the fact they were no longer being put through the stress exercises. When the scientists measured their brains again, they saw that the rats’ amygdala were still enlarged.  

The take home message for me here is that we may need to actually work with our brains in order to counteract any amygdala-enlarging experiences we have been exposed to.  

The good news is that work being done in the lab of Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard who is one of the experts I interviewed for The Connection, indicates there may be a simple, inexpensive, drug free way to shrink our amygdala.  

Dr. Lazar put people who had never meditated through an eight-week meditation program and observed that the amygdala of her subjects actually got smaller. They also reported less stress and greater feelings of peace.  

What’s interesting about Dr. Lazar’s study in comparison to the studies on the rats is that nothing in these people’s lives had changed other than their meditation practice. They still had their work stressors and usual complications of everyday living. The only thing that was different was their regular mediation practice and yet they were able to rewire their brain. The rats on the other hand showed signs of anxiety and enlarged stress centers; even after the fear inducing protocols had been stopped.  

As Dr. Lazar explains in this video sliced from The Connection, what all this indicates is that meditation allows people to perceive their stressors differently and that in turn may allow the rewiring their brain. She concludes that all this isn’t so much about changing your life but rather, it’s about changing your relationship to your life.  

The next logical step with this ground breaking research will of course be to teach rats to meditate, but in the meantime you might like to experiment with your own meditation practice and over time, observe yourself reacting differently in stressful situations.


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