Interview with Prof. Bruce S. McEwen

With the world becoming noisier and more interconnected, it seems like stress levels are on the rise. It is therefore necessary that we better understand the causes and ramifications of stress, which is not only detrimental to our health, but also impacts work performance, personal relationships, and even the state of our brains. Fortunately, we are endowed with capacity for resilience and positive change.

Prof. Bruce S. McEwen, head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University, is an expert in the impact of stress hormones on the brain. He has published more than 700 peer-reviewed articles, won multiple awards, and is the co-author of “The End of Stress As We Know It”, and “The Hostage Brain”. Tharawat spoke to Prof. McEwen about the meaning of stress, its effects on the human brain, and possible coping mechanisms.

What is stress exactly? How is it defined?

We tend to use the term “stress” arbitrarily. At the Harvard based National Scientific Council of the Developing Child, where we focus on urban life adversity, we have collectively come up with three different types of stress.

“Good stress” is when you are faced with a challenge, like an important meeting or giving a speech. These situations generally present a risk. If you have good self-esteem and a strong sense of self you remain in control. When the outcome is successful, you feel elated and reinforced because you have risen to meet the challenge.

The second type of stress is what we call “tolerable stress”, usually associated with circumstances that are painful or have an element of the unexpected, such as the death of a family member or divorce. Such events can be traumatic. When a person has good self-esteem and good social and material resources, these are storms that can be weathered. Of course when there has been adversity early on in life, such as abuse or the loss of a parent, what is tolerable to some, can be unbearable to others.

This brings us to the third type, “toxic stress”, which occurs when the person lacks self esteem and/or adequate social and material resources to cope, provoking a downward spiral in which one may eat, smoke or drink too much, become depressed, or otherwise unable to function.

 What causes stress and how can it be detected?

There are obvious stressors that we all know of, the subtle things that happen to us every day like conflict at home, large workloads, long daily commutes, and sleep deprivation, to name a few. A lot of the time, we see such symptoms in families with financial worries. For many, including children, it is obsession with social media. Another frequently underestimated stressor is the everyday violence and unhappiness we witness around us. Pollution and a noisy environment can also seriously heighten stress levels.

Stress and the Brain – A Complex Relationship
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Stressors can cause physiological changes. To know whether you are stressed out or not, you must look at the broader picture. Take an honest inventory of how you are doing. Are you physically active? Are you sleeping well? Do you interact with friends? If you are not sleeping well and aren’t eating well, or drinking too much, then chances are you may suffer from a system overload and are stressed out for one reason or another.