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Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop

“This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.”

Chronic stress has been shown to raise blood pressure, stiffen arteries, suppress the immune system, heighten the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease and make one a very undesirable dinner companion, now researchers have discovered that the sensation of being highly stressed can rewire the brain in ways that promote its sinister persistence.

Reporting earlier this summer in the journal Science, Nuno Sousa of the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal and his colleagues described experiments in which chronically stressed rats lost their elastic rat cunning and instead fell back on familiar routines and rote responses, like compulsively pressing a bar for food pellets they had no intention of eating.

In other words, the rodents were now cognitively predisposed to keep doing the same things over and over, to run laps in the same dead-ended rat race rather than seek a pipeline to greener sewers. “Behaviors become habitual faster in stressed animals than in the controls, and worse, the stressed animals can’t shift back to goal-directed behaviors when that would be the better approach,” Dr. Sousa said. “I call this a vicious circle.”

Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, “This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.”

The truth is, Dr. Sapolsky said, “we’re lousy at recognizing when our normal coping mechanisms aren’t working. Our response is usually to do it five times more, instead of thinking, maybe it’s time to try something new.”

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