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Raising triplets Hays, Presley, and Millie is challenging for Caitlin and Chris Nichols of Lawrenceville, Georgia. Born prematurely, the children have long-term health problems. Caregivers of chronically ill children face health difficulties themselves: Telomeres—protective caps at the ends of chromosomes—are shorter than expected, a possible sign of stress-related aging.

Can scientists ‘solve’ stress?

They’re trying.

From cardiovascular disease and obesity to a weakened immune system, the side effects of stress can be life-altering. But there may be a way to prevent those outcomes.

By Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

Photographs by Brian Finke

PUBLISHED MAY 14, 2024

As modern-day stress ratchets up to what feels like unbearable levels, researchers are striving to learn more about the precise mechanisms through which it affects our body and mind. The hope is that by unlocking more about how stress works physiologically, we can find ways to prevent it from permanently harming people.

Over the last five decades, scientists have established beyond doubt that persistent stress really can poison our overall health. In addition to increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, stress plays a role in obesity and diabetes and can weaken the immune system, leaving us more vulnerable to infectious diseases. You can recover swiftly from an episode of acute stress—for example, the alarm one might feel when caught unprepared for a presentation. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is more toxic as it is an unrelenting circumstance that offers little chance for a return to normalcy. Financial strain, having a bully for a boss, and social isolation are all examples.

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Inside the Computer Assisted Rehabilitation Environment Laboratory at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, Army veteran Wayne Christian walks toward an emotionally triggering photo of himself. Studies indicate that by helping patients confront traumatic memories and process the negative feelings around them, this advanced treatment reduces the symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

Today chronic stress seems to be increasing worldwide, as people grapple with rapid socioeconomic and environmental change.  A 2023 national survey by the American Psychological Association found that stress has taken a serious toll since the start of the pandemic, with the incidence of chronic illnesses and mental health problems going up significantly, especially among those ages 35 to 44.

 

So far, one of the major realizations among scientists is that stress harms all of us in different and powerful ways. But is there any way to avoid it—or at least recover more quickly? Some promising avenues of research offer hope for the future.

Preventing chronic stress from harming you in the first place

Korosi may have found a surprising link between stress and the resulting nutrient composition in the brain. She and her colleagues noticed that mouse pups that had been exposed to stress in the first week of their lives—having been moved from their mother’s care to a cage—had lower levels of certain fatty acids and amino acids in their brains compared with pups being raised in a stress-free environment.

She wondered if it was possible to normalize a stressed pup’s development by feeding it a diet rich in the specific nutrients its brain would be lacking. To find out, the researchers first fed a supplemented diet to the mothers so it would pass through their milk, then continued to provide it in the pups’ feed for two weeks after they were weaned. A few months later, the researchers tested the now adult mice in learning and memory. Unlike stressed mice that had never received an enriched diet, these mice did not display cognitive impairments.

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High school junior Zainab Khorakiwala undergoes a functional MRI as part of a study by Harvard’s Stress and Development Lab examining how everyday stress affects teens’ brain development.

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In an Amsterdam lab, a mouse searches for the hole that allows it to escape a maze. Researchers stressed nursing females by limiting nesting material, to see the effects on their pups. Once grown, the mice were tested in the maze. In contrast to mice with easier infancies, the mice reared by stressed mothers did poorly, taking longer to remember where the escape hole was.

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Developing an early warning system for stress

Katie McLaughlin, a psychologist at the University of Oregon, is investigating how mental health problems arise in adolescents as they’re going through a particularly vulnerable time in their lives, transitioning to adulthood.

She and her colleagues are still collecting data, but a smaller, precursor study tracking 30 teenagers offers clues about what the researchers might learn—and how it might help them identify stress before it goes too far. 

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Above Article is taken from

 

National Geographic Magazine - June 2024 issue

The New Science of Stress

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