The way your body responds to stress helps determine your overall coping skills and ability to “move on” after a stressful or traumatic event. Poor recovery after trauma can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, pain, or fatigue in some people.
Research has shown that we have a “personal profile” of resilience to stress. Our profile is based on our brain’s ability to regulate stress combined with molecular elements.
In a new study, researchers at Tel Aviv University (TAU) closely analyzed what happens in the body after a stressful experience — from cellular changes to brain function, emotional responses, and behavior. The new findings may lead to a future blood test that would facilitate preventive or early intervention in professions prone to high stress or trauma, such as combat soldiers or police officers.
“We all need to react to stress; it’s healthy to react to something considered a challenge or a threat,” said Professor Talma Hendler of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and the Director of the Functional Brain Center at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
“The problem is when you don’t recover in a day, or a week, or more. This indicates your brain and/or body do not regulate properly and have a hard time returning to homeostasis (i.e., a balanced baseline). We found that this recovery involves both neural and epigenetic/cellular mechanisms, together contributing to our subjective experience of the stress.”
“This is perhaps the first study to induce stress in the lab and look at resulting changes to three levels of the stress response — neural (seen in brain imaging), cellular (measured through epigenetics), and experience (assessed through behavioral report).”
The study involved 49 healthy young male adults. Researchers integrated the analysis of fMRI images of brain function during an acute social stress task and also measured levels of microRNAs — small RNAs that exert powerful regulatory effects — obtained in a blood test before and three hours after the induced stress.
“We found that vulnerability to stress is not only related to a predisposition due to a certain gene,” said Dr. Noam Shomron of TAU’s Sagol School of Neuroscience and Sackler School of Medicine. “The relevant gene can be expressed or not expressed according to a person’s experience, environment, and many other context-related factors.
“This type of interaction between the environment and our genome has been conceptualized lately as the ‘epigenetic process.’ It has become clear that these processes are of an utmost importance to our health and well being, and are probably, in some cases, above and beyond our predispositions.”
The researchers found that twenty minutes after the stress drill had ended, there were basically two groups: the recovered (those no longer stressed) and the sustainers (those still stressed) . The sustainers either didn’t go back to baseline or took much longer to do so.
“If you can identify through a simple blood test those likely to develop maladaptive responses to stress, you can offer a helpful prevention or early intervention,” said Shomron.
The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.