The amygdala quickly signals a threat or stress in the environment, and the prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala to see stressful events as a little less scary or frustrating.
It is important to be able to use the brain to help slow the production of cortisol in the HPA axis. This process helps us calm down during a normal stressor by perceiving the situation as non-life threatening. In the bear example, which is a real danger, this process would help us to calm down after the bear runs away. Even though our bodies have these super stress—response systems, humans are best at dealing with stress when they have a little help.
This help is called social support, which refers to the ways that other people can help us feel safe, loved, and cared for [ 1 ]. Your friends and family may provide social support by hugging you when you are sad or scared, hanging out with you when you feel lonely, or celebrating with you when you are excited.
We especially need social support when we are very young. Remember earlier when we mentioned that the amygdala shares a special connection with the prefrontal cortex? This connection does not mature until you are a teenager; therefore, infants and children rely on their parents to help them calm down. Scientists have studied how the brain responds to stress using a special technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI for short.
Scientists did an experiment to find out how moms help their children deal with stress. Children ages 4—10 and teenagers ages 11—17 viewed emotional faces on a computer screen. Some of the faces showed negative emotions, like sadness or fear. Because seeing these negative emotional faces could be stressful, the amygdalas of the children and teenagers became active when these faces were viewed [ 2 ].
Children who had their mothers next to them as they viewed the faces showed lower amygdala activity Figure 2. These children also had more mature connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex when their mothers were nearby! When people, like the moms in this experiment, provide social support that helps regulate the stress response, it is called social buffering. Buffering means to protect or shield. Social buffering that comes from mothers is called maternal buffering.
Research has shown that moms and other caregivers like dads and babysitters help to lower the cortisol levels in babies and kids who have experienced a stressful situation [ 1 ]. The results of the study are even more amazing because the scientists did not observe maternal buffering when teenagers did the same task with their mothers next to them. Does this mean that teenagers no longer need their moms? Evidence from another study show that teens still need their moms, but in a different way. In this experiment, the scientists had teenagers play a risky driving video game alone and when their moms were present.
In the game, teenagers approached a yellow light that was about to turn red. They had to decide if they should drive through the light and risk getting into a car accident. This study demonstrates that teens also need the support of their moms to make good choices! Stress comes in many different forms. The example we have used throughout this article is encountering a bear. Seeing a bear is typically a short-term stressor, because you would probably get out of that stressful situation quickly.
Feeling stressed is normal and good for detecting danger in the environment.
But for some people, stress becomes a normal part of life. Imagine if you were bullied at school. Going to school every day might become scary or stressful. Short-term stress causes short bursts of a lot of cortisol. If the HPA axis is activated continuously, as with long-term stress, the stress—response system will change to try and deal with long-term stress [ 1 ].
The stress—response system changes by making less cortisol since there is so much in the body.
This causes an imbalance of cortisol and poor functioning of the stress—response system. One situation that might cause long-term stress is very poor care early in life, such as living in an orphanage without parents. A study see Figure 3 compared children who lived in orphanages to children who grew up with their parents. The scientists also focused on the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala to study how these children regulated emotional stress.
This means that their brains were able to regulate their emotional stress even without a parent nearby. It might sound like a good thing to have a mature brain. But this is not always true for humans. Humans take a long time to mature. The normal pattern of human development allows humans to learn a lot about how to be an adult before actually becoming one. The children in this study lived in very crowded orphanages without much love and affection from adults.
Becoming mature too soon is related to more anxiety, a mental state of worry and fear [ 4 ]. The good news is that children who are adopted eventually experience social buffering from stress when they feel loved and supported by their adopted family [ 1 ]. The brain fights stress every single day. Whether an enormous bear is chasing you or you see a small spider in your room, the brain and the body are ready and equipped to deal with the stress. Our brains are like superheroes—ready to save the day! With the help of the HPA axis, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex, we can calm ourselves down during stressful situations.
No one can get through everything alone, not even superheroes. Our brains sometimes rely on the help of our friends and families to help buffer the response to stress. Parents are extremely helpful, especially when we are young. Anxiety makes things seem scarier than they actually are, which will make the child feel even more stressed! There are things you can do to handle short-term and long-term stress in your own life. Doing any activity that you enjoy releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel happy.
Exercising and moving your body are great ways to reduce stress. Another way to handle stress is spending time with friends and family.
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Remember that having people in your life who provide social support can make you feel cared for, which will slow the release of cortisol. The best thing to do is tell a trusted adult if you are feeling stressed for a long period of time!
Hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis - Wikipedia
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