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Experiencing Divorce/Separation: The Effects of Stress on the Brain

Going through divorce/separation is extremely stressful for most people as they try to find a way through the minefield of legal and financial implications, whilst navigating the complex parenting and emotional issues that arise during the process.

Over time, elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) can chip away at our physical, mental and emotional health. Links between chronic stress and the potential for mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, is well established.

Here are four ways that stress changes and affects your brain: 

  1. Stress triggers a chemical change that makes you irritable 

Many of us know that we’re not pleasant to be around when we’re feeling stressed. We are more likely to get irritable and possibly express this in negative ways towards others i.e. lacking sociability, avoiding interactions with peers, demonstrating dissatisfaction, impatience, mistrust, etc.

We may also experience impaired memory or understanding as under pressure, we are more likely to get distracted and forgetful – a sign of the destructive effects of stress in the brain.

  1. Chronic stress can shrink the brain

Stressful life events can harm your brain’s memory and learning capacity by reducing the volume of gray matter in brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions. Chronic stress and/or depression can contribute to lost volume in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is associated with emotional and cognitive impairment.           Researchers found this is particularly true of people with a genetic marker that can disrupt the formation of synaptic connections between brain cells. Even short-term stress can lead to communication issues among brain cells associated with memory & learning.

  1. Even one stressful event can kill off brain cells 

As we learn new information, we are constantly generating new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with learning, memory & emotion. But ongoing stress can halt the production of new neurons and may also affect the speed of connections between cells. Studies have found that even a single stressful event can destroy newly created neurons in the hippocampus as this region of the human brain is especially vulnerable to ongoing emotional distress, because of the damaging effects of cortisol.

  1. Stress triggers the brain’s ‘fight-or-flight’ threat response

While cortisol hampers the learning & memory activity of the hippocampus, it increases the size and activity of the amygdala, the brain’s main centre for emotional responses. The amygdala is responsible for processing fear, threat perception and the fight-or-flight response. This increased activity can lead to a state of panic or alarm, constantly reacting to perceived threats, restricting our ability to take in new information. It can also heighten our emotional reactions in such a way that we demonstrate irrational, angry, confrontational behavioural responses due to extreme duress and distress we experience.

Anxiety & Depression in Children: are your kids riding a cortisol roller coaster?

Concerned about your child who seems fatigued, frazzled and lacking in motivation?  This could be linked to their cortisol levels and over exposure to stress when they were younger.

Research has discovered a link between child behavioural issues, high cortisol levels and poor performance at school. Cortisol is the steroid hormone produced by the cortex of the adrenal gland that helps in responding to and coping with stress, trauma and environmental extremes. It regulates our blood glucose, the immune system and helps to increase energy and metabolism and regulate blood pressure. But when cortisol is over-secreted during our ‘fight or flight’ response, it can cause physical and mental health issues and over time can become diluted.‎

It would seem that the body adapts to long-term exposure to stress by diluting or shutting down the cortisol system – which affects our overall health if not functioning well and helping regulate our hormonal responses.

Children demonstrating either ‘internalising’ behaviours, such as depression and anxiety or ‘externalising’ behaviours, such as aggression or attention deficit are on the cortisol ‘roller coaster’. Over time, too much internalising or externalising can create a blunting affect to cortisol levels.  It’s like shaking up a cola bottle. The bottle once containing a normal amount of bubbles, becomes so full of energetic bubbles that it either explodes or erupts in short, sharp bursts until there is virtually no fizz left or it’s all gone flat.

Teenagers who deal with prolonged stress issues become disengaged and less reactive to normal stresses. They often don’t step up academically or get busy studying for exams as quickly as their peers.  A frazzled seemingly ‘not bothered’ attitude can become the norm. Fatigue can ensue and this impaired stress response can lead to further anxiety and depression.

Mood disorders, as well as ongoing anxiety and depression can manifest and lead to physical changes in the brain. The brain shifts into less functional patterns, altering mood and affecting short-term memory function.

So what are some of the contributory factors to high cortisol levels? Over-worked at school; separated or divorced parents and exposure to their conflict; bullying; long-term friendship issues; poverty; family loss and abandonment are just a few indicators.

How can we tackle the issue? By seeking professional help from nutritionists and therapists; trying to avoid stressful situations and keeping the channels of communication open. Following a healthy diet, regular exercise, reducing caffeine, ensuring more rest and better care of oneself is key.

Don’t let it get to a state of crisis! If young children are showing signs of stress then seek help as soon as possible!

Depression in Adults: feeling weighed down in an old deep-sea diving suit?

Almost 1 in 4 adults are being diagnosed with a mental health illness in the UK today, of which the most common diagnosis is depression. That’s a quarter of the population who have or will experience depression at some point in their lives.

Depression is the fastest growing ‘silent’ illness with many people suffering in silence and abject misery, feeling too ‘ashamed’ or embarrassed to seek any kind of help. Some become so fearful of being tagged with a mental health label, they increasingly isolate themselves, hiding in the shadows and remaining undiagnosed.

Some may have been advised to ‘get over it’ or told ‘you’ll be fine’ and believe they need to maintain a ‘stiff upper lip and all that’.  Either way, depression is still a subject and issue that is hard to bring to the surface and talk about openly. By nature of the effects, most sufferers of depression find it extremely hard to reach out and ask for help.

Working with people who have suffered various levels of depression, I would liken the symptoms to the feeling of being stuck in an old deep-sea diving suit in the deepest, darkest seas, far from land.

Incapacitated, as if wearing lead-filled boots that keep you stuck at the bottom, with your neck and head weighed down by heavy metal helmet,  you’re hoping that your only access to oxygen – through a plastic tube – does not fail. Land, people and society seem so far away and all sound is muffled by the crashing waves and turbulence of dark sea. Ocean creatures seem all the more menacing. You feel ‘cast away’ from the delights of what seems to be the happening in outside world, on safe land or from those even enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of the sea.

‎Sufferers can have numerous physical symptoms too such as constant tiredness, insomnia,  loss of appetite and libido, lack of motivation as well as other physical aches and pains. Emotional symptoms range from lows to highs with frequent peaks of anxiety. When feeling in ‘low’ spirits, many feel overwhelmed, crying frequently, experiencing extreme lethargy and finding it hard to concentrate.  When ‘high’ one can feel useless, like a burden on others, perhaps not being able to get out of bed, struggling to function at work or socially, with possible persistent suicidal thoughts.

If the above sounds familiar, please don’t suffer in silence – seek help! There is a tendency for people to leave it at crisis point, believing it will pass. If you are unsure why not carry out a self-assessment by visiting the NHS link: ‎http://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/depression.aspx

Many single, separated parents feel unable to parent their children, feeling weighed down and stuck in their own kind of diving suit. So if you are still feeling depressed or recognise the above symptoms after a couple of years of separation then please do seek specialist support.

If you are feeling particularly alone and unsupported during separation or divorce please take a look at our Separation S.O.S. page or consider coming along to a Kids Come First Separated Parent Support Workshop.