Can stress help us overcome trauma?

1: “In the late 1990s, an unusual experiment took place in the trauma center of an Akron, Ohio, hospital,” Kelly McGonigal writes in her terrific book, The Upside of Stress.

Patients who had recently survived a major car or motorcycle accident were part of a study on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The researchers set out to discover if they could predict who would develop PTSD based on their level of stress hormones immediately after the trauma.

Nine of the 55 patients were diagnosed with PTSD: “They had flashbacks and nightmares,” writes Kelly.  “They tried to avoid reminders of the accident by not driving, staying off highways, or refusing to talk about what happened.”

The other 46 patients did not suffer in the same way. 

The researchers suspected those with PTSD were likely those who were most stressed following their accidents.  

The researchers were wrong.

The 46 patients who did not experience PTSD had higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline than the nine diagnosed with PTSD.

“Cortisol and adrenaline are part of what scientists call the stress response, a set of biological changes that helps you cope with stressful situations,” Kelly explains. “Most people view the stress response as a toxic state to be minimized, but the reality is not so bleak.”

The research indicates our stress response is our best ally during difficult moments—something to rely on rather than an enemy to overcome.

2: The Akron PTSD study was the first of several showing a correlation between a stronger physical stress response and improved long-term recovery from a traumatic event.  

“One of the most promising new therapies to prevent or treat PTSD is administering doses of stress hormones,” writes Kelly.  “For example, a case report in the American Journal of Psychiatry describes how stress hormones reversed post-traumatic stress disorder in a fifty-year-old man who had survived a terrorist attack five years earlier. 

After taking ten milligrams of cortisol a day for three months, his PTSD symptoms decreased to the point that he no longer became extremely distressed when he thought about the attack.”  

Doctors are beginning to administer stress hormones to patients about to have traumatic surgery.  This approach is reducing time in intensive care and improving quality of life six months after surgery.

“Stress hormones have even become a supplement to traditional psychotherapy,” Kelly shares.  “Taking a dose of stress hormones right before a therapy session can improve the effectiveness of treatment for anxiety and phobias.”

We’ve been taught to fear stress.  Instead, we can learn to capitalize on it to support our resilience.

3:  These studies are supplemented by promising studies with animals.

Stanford biopsychologist Karen Parker studies the effects of early life stress on both humans and squirrel monkeys.  In one study, she introduced stress in young monkeys by separating them from their mothers and placing them in an isolated cage for one hour per day.  “In many ways, that makes it an excellent model for ordinary childhood stress,” Kelly observes.

The results surprised Karen.  She predicted that the stress of being separated from their mothers would lead to emotional instability.  

Not so fast.

“Instead, the stress led to resilience,” writes Kelly.  “As they grew up, the monkeys who had experienced early life stress were less anxious than the more sheltered monkeys.  They explored new environments and showed greater curiosity toward new objects—a young monkey’s version of courage.  They were quicker to solve new mental challenges that the experimenters gave them.  

“As juveniles—the equivalent of teenagers—the previously stressed monkeys even showed greater self-control.  All of these effects lasted into adulthood.”

Interestingly, the monkeys who had experienced early-life stress developed larger prefrontal cortexes, resulting in dampened fear responses, improved impulse control, and increased positive motivation.  

While no one wants more stress in their life, Kelly observes, “we can take comfort in the research that shows how stressful experiences can themselves be protective.” 

More tomorrow.
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Reflection: What surprises me about Kelly’s research?  Consider a stressful episode in my life.  Thinking back now, what did I learn as a result of this experience?  What does my experience suggest about future stressful periods?

Action:  Journal about my answers to the questions above.

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