High school is stressful. Students are forced to balance heavy loads of school work on top of family obligations and time-consuming extracurricular activities. We all know a little bit of stress is healthy, providing just enough motivation to give you a kick in the butt, but not enough to make you want to pull your hair out. However, when finals time rolls around and you’re ready to cry because you’re so overburdened, then stress becomes a problem. When you’re stressed, glucocorticoids, or stress hormones increase the level of cortisol in your body, prepping it to take on the physical demands of stress. (In terms of evolution, being under stress is being chased by a lion that thinks you’re dinner, not taking the SAT tomorrow). Science has always told us that stress is bad for us; high levels of cortisol are linked to depression and high levels of cortisol over prolonged periods of time actually impair our ability to cope with stress. Just reading about this is stressful, right? But what if I told you that stress might actually be good for you, at least in one respect. A new study conducted by Ranjish Rao and published in Biological Psychiatry shows that high glucocorticoid levels could potentially help reduce the development of PTSD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
No, I’m not Crazy. Stress Really Can Be Good for You
PTSD is caused when a person witnesses a traumatic, potentially life-threatening event. For example, combat soldiers and children who were sexually abused often times suffer from PTSD. Recent studies show the “trauma” in PTSD is the impact of stress on the brain structure of the victim, according to Dr. John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry. The study conducted by Rao was inspired by an odd occurrence: clinical reports showed people with low cortisol levels were more likely to develop PTSD, and that cortisol treatment actually reduces the symptoms of PTSD. The study used a model of a rat to study its stress levels in relation to corticoids. Professor Chattarji from the National Center of Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India explains the outcome of the experiment: “ We were able to…. identify a possible cellular mechanism in the amygdala, the emotional hub of the brain [responsible for this odd occurrence.]” It turns out the number of synapses in the amygdala is a fairly accurate predictor of whether or not a person will have high or low anxiety levels. The corticoids given to the rats reset the number of synapses in their amygdalas, and brought down their stress level.
So What Does this Mean for Me?
If you’re a high-stressed, health conscious person like me, after reading this you might feel slightly better about your high stress levels, but don’t celebrate just yet. Even though we all have the potential to develop PTSD, not everyone does, so this study is relevant to only a portion of the population. Even if it were relevant to everyone, the stress hormones in the study were given to the rats under controlled circumstances, and if this were to become an actual therapeutic treatment for PTSD, the patient would most likely ingest corticoids under the close watch of their psychiatrist. In my opinion, the damage caused by high glucocorticoid levels far outweigh the benefits. So, take a deep breath and relax. Maybe go for a run or talk with a friend. Your stress will eventually go away.