Chronic Social Stress Changes Your Brain

We all know that bullying and other stressful social situations can have lasting effects on a person, but a new study from New York’s Rockefeller University suggests that chronic social stress actually affects gene activity in the brain and may lead to physical changes that make people more prone to social anxiety disorders.

Brains of Bullied Mice

The researchers set up young test mice to be bullied by an older mouse--a natural reaction due to mice’s territoriality--in 10 different cages on 10 different days. When they examined the bullied mice’s brains, the researchers found increased activity in genes for hormone receptors that regulate the brain’s sensitivity to social stimuli. As a result, the mice’s brains had additional receptors that made parts of the brain more sensitive to vasopressin, a hormone involved in male to male aggression and other social interactions.

Long-term Effects

After the study was concluded, the bullied mice were allowed a day on their own with no bullying or stress. Despite this time to recuperate, the mice acted afraid when introduced to new mice, even though they were relatively friendly. It is thought that their extra hormone sensitivity caused them to feel afraid even when they were placed in situations should appear safe. The length of time this effects last is unknown, but it suggests that bullying may have a lasting impact that could make it difficult to form future relationships. As lead researcher Yoav Litvin noted, “Just as alcohol affects your liver, stress affects your brain.”

However, Litvin doesn’t consider this reason to despair. He points out that the brain systems in question are dynamic, and says, “What goes one way, usually can go the other way — although it may not be able to be totally reversed."

Photo: Pexels

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