Stress is an evolutionary necessity. The ancestral ability to recognize stressful situations–and cope with them–is what has enabled species such as our own to continue through the centuries. When humans were hunter-gatherers, coping with stress meant simply finding the next meal. So where does stress fit into today’s ultra-convenient world of instant food and information?
A new study by researchers from the Stockholm Brain Institute entitled Occupational Stress, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, has found that chronic occupational stress does indeed cause structural brain changes and may, over time, cause brain damage as well. The researchers, led by Dr. Ivanka Savic, defined occupational stress simply as an “imbalance between demands and resources.” Symptoms include: problems with memory and concentration, sleeplessness, constant fatigue and feeling emotionally drained. According to Dr. Slavic, “…it affects healthy, productive, and highly functional individuals typically working long hours for many years without a normal weekend recovery.”
The study used MRI to image the brains of 40 healthy men and women who had reported occupational stress, and a control group of 40 unstressed participants. The stressed participants’ MRIs revealed significant thinning of the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision making and sensory perception. This area of the brain is, notably, also affected in the brains of people who have suffered intense or early life trauma causing undue stress.
Although these findings are still in preliminary stages, Dr. Slavic notes “Extreme occupational stress needs to be coped with at an early level, and if becoming associated with maladaptive coping effort and strategy, the result may be a drastically reduced recuperation, sleep problems, fatigue, and subsequently cognitive disability.”