A tool to train the brain to deal with stress

We’ve all been victims to the challenges of life. These challenges disturb the physical or mental equilibrium which is essential for quality life. This disturbance in equilibrium precipitates what we call stress. Sometimes it manifests as the sensation of all the blood rushing to your heart with your brain in overdrive, motivating you to perform faster and better. Sometimes it’s an overwhelming emotion of feeling overburdened and helpless. No matter what its form, stress is omnipresent. Short lived stress is a powerful motivator sometimes resulting in what might seem to be miraculous events. On the other hand, chronic or long-term stress is detrimental to life, precipitating a variety of mental and physical illnesses grossly affecting the morbidity and mortality of the affected population.

Dealing with stress is a universal problem. Literature, media, health professionals and just about every Tom, Dick, and Harry have an opinion on the best way to train your brain to manage stress. And why not? Stress reactions are different in each individual and routines should be tailor-made for each. This, however, is practically impossible and therefore most people resort to conventional methods. These methods more often than not do not work for everyone and may also not be very accessible. So what have our ever resourceful and thoughtful scientists done? They have developed a new imaging tool which they say will allow us better regulate our brain activity in an effective, efficient and affordable way.

This imaging tool focuses on visualizing the amygdala. The amygdala is the seat of emotions and the master of memory. It is also the part of the brain that mediates survival instincts by eliciting responses to fear and anxiety. Hence it seems logical that tuning down the amygdala helps manage stress. This has in fact been proven to be possible by methods such as meditation, yoga, biofeedback etc. The problem is how to determine which technique is the most effective, since not everything works for everyone. The answer to this is real time measurement of the activity in the amygdala. So far, the amygdala has been difficult to visualize with any imaging technique, being located in the medial part of the temporal lobe. Functional MRI scanning which allows visualization is expensive and remotely accessible. To overcome this problem Dr. Talma Hendler and her team from Tel-Aviv University in Israel have come up with a novel imaging technique that uses electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor and measure activity in the Amygdala. This will enable individuals to effectively and efficiently self-regulate their brain activity.

According to the study the tool was tested by teaching individuals to modify the response in their amygdala by reducing an auditory feedback signal that was directly proportional to the activity. This method allows individuals to identify which stress reduction technique works best for them and develop an agenda that will benefit them the most by allowing them to better regulate their emotional responses. Though the study only involved normal individuals, it may be extrapolated to include all subsets of populations. This includes individuals who have had traumatic experiences allowing them to gain an improved control on their deregulated emotional responses (PTSD) and also on those with mood disorders such as anxiety and depression. The key to stress management is therefore just around the corner, and hence a happier, healthier world too.

Meghna Nambakkam

Fourth Year Medical Student, SRMMCHRC

Bridging Passion and Compassion

For more: Best Psychologist