The relationship between Stress and Compulsion


I’m too busy at the moment (fulfilling compulsions) to add much in the way of context, but it occurred to me that I wouldn’t be a very good OCD blogger if I didn’t link to this article in today’s New York Times. Here’s a clip:

…As though it weren’t bad enough that 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.

Moreover, the rats’ behavioral perturbations were reflected by a pair of complementary changes in their underlying neural circuitry. On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed.

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”…

I can’t even begin to express to you how much this resonates with me.

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  1. Jim
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:08 am | Permalink

    This article really resonated with me too. I felt relieved when I got to this paragraph:

    “But with only four weeks’ vacation in a supportive setting free of bullies and Tasers, the formerly stressed rats looked just like the controls, able to innovate, discriminate and lay off the bar. Atrophied synaptic connections in the decisive regions of the prefrontal cortex resprouted, while the overgrown dendritic vines of the habit-prone sensorimotor striatum retreated.”

  2. Oliva
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    I like that paragraph too, Jim, a relief after the one before it, when a reader could get stressed hearing about what they did to the rats (“To rattle the rats to the point where their stress response remained demonstrably hyperactive, the researchers exposed the animals to four weeks of varying stressors: moderate electric shocks, being encaged with dominant rats, prolonged dunks in water.”)

    I’ve heard it put that we use an alarm clock to wake up, but we don’t need to carry around the ringing alarm all day after it’s done its work of waking us up. Same with the stress response. Ideally, it gets turned off after it alerts us, but that’s not how it goes for a lot of people. (Finishing an exhale deeply until your system kicks in, triggers the brain stem, and makes you take a new breath helps a person regulate and reduces stress.)

  3. Mike
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    There’s some hope in it. The atrophied parts of the brain come back with time, given the right conditions.

    Note to self: Follow through on plans to begin meditation regimen.

  4. Oliva
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    The article quotes Robert Sapolsky of Stanford. Some of his fairly brief talks are available at no cost via iTunes. Nice-voiced guy. Good listening . . .

  5. Action Man
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    He also has very soft hands and a gentle touch.

  6. In desense of stress
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    I know it’ll be an unpopular sentiment in this thread, but someone, I feel, has to speak up for stress. Stress is what makes this country of ours great. Without it, we’re Jamaica. Or, worse yet, Italy. This country of ours is one in which people are driven, and that’s good. That’s what got us to the moon, and in Wonder Bras.

  7. Oliva
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Jamaica, blessed with so much lushness and beauty and good coffee and ganja and people and music (sort of like Italy in many key ways, come to think of it, and both surrounded by temperate seas, so lovely) and so on, is kind of littler than the United States, without quite the natural resources and land mass and space for all those immigrants that brought great things like, outside of the South until last century, an esteem for European notions of a socialistic nature to help balance a very different kind of impulse afoot here . . . And Italy is crowded with evidence of “greatness” and visible splendor–from the land and sea themselves to the people to the, well, shoes, plus is the birthplace of the slow food movement, among many things. And here we are, Americans, a very strange brew, with so many enchanting ideas and people, also plenty of creeps and nuts, many caught in the sticky web of competition and fear, and an abiding goofy, sweet hope of reshaping those drives to go toward more camaraderie (“We the people”) and greater contentment (pursuing happiness) but not abandoning the thrill of discovery, innovation, creativity, bravery, earnestness (!), learning (learning humility too, which is where I thought we were supposed to be at, historically–though I think there’s some lag time involved).

    Okay, that’s just how I see it.

  8. Chelsea
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Oy vey!

  9. kjc
    Posted August 24, 2009 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    By stress I assume you don’t mean the kind you feel when an unmanned predator drone drops a bomb on your wedding party. For example.

    Yeah, greatest country on earth.

  10. Nurberto Pauling
    Posted June 24, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t ware that a connection between Alzheimers and stress had been shown. I guess I’m fucked.

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