From stress to body and brain damage

Dr. Sonia Lupien, Director, Centre for Studies on Human Stress
Scientific Director, Institut universitaire en santé mentale de Montréal

What’s the Issue?
We all think we know what stress is…but do we? Most people think that stress is due to time pressure, but scientific studies show that there are four characteristics of a situation that can lead to a physiological stress response that can have damaging effects on the body and the brain if it occurs for too long. There characteristics are: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego and Sense of low control (‘NUTS’).

What’s the Research?
Dr. Lupien studies the effects of stress on the human brain, from infancy to adulthood and old age. Her studies have shown that children are as vulnerable as adults to stress, and that children as young as age six can produce high levels of stress hormones. Her studies in adults have shown that stress can significantly impair memory performance and her studies in older adults have shown that chronic exposure to high levels of stress hormones is associated with memory impairments and a reduction of the brain region involved in memory function.

What’s the Impact?
Dr. Lupien thinks we need to improve our understanding of stress. She developed the acronym ‘NUTS’ to help people remember the different factors that can lead to a stress response, and with this information in hand, she developed education programs for children, teenagers and adults. In her new research projects, she is working on differences between men and women in stress reactivity, and she is developing new educational programs on stress in adolescents and workers. For adolescents, she has developed the ‘DeStress for Success Program©’ that aims to teach adolescents making the transition from elementary to high school about ways to control stress. She has developed the ‘Stress Inc©’ program to help people recognize and control stress by means of a computer program in the workplace.

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