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Your brain and stress: Takeaways from neurobiology of stress

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SEPTEMBER 23, 2023

Stress: it looms over us like a rain cloud even on sunny days, hangs heavy in the gut when exam grades are released, and keeps us awake long after the lights are out. However, as pervasive as it is, we seem to have a slim understanding of what stress really is or how to deal with it sustainably.

To combat my own lack of literacy on stress, last year I enrolled in “The Neurobiology of Stress,” an upper-division course in UC Berkeley’s Integrative Biology department. Throughout the class, we discussed the concept of stress and how it is studied scientifically. We covered a wide range of topics, looking closely at the various ways that the brain and the body respond to stressors. The course highlighted several factors that contribute most to the body’s level of stress response — among them, exercise, social connections, meditative practices, cognitive reappraisal and sleep. 

As the academic term neared its end and I poured over my notes in preparation for finals, I found myself in the awkward position of studying stress while I was experiencing a growing sense of stress at school myself. To cope with the overwhelming nature of final exam season, I revisited the stress-relieving activities that we had learned in class. These activities proved especially valuable when I needed them the most, but they can also benefit anyone seeking stress intervention or just some extra guidance when coping with the stressors of daily life.

Generally speaking, the term stress is referenced in social settings as an anxious state of mind, one that often only has negative connotations. However, what is often omitted is the broader fact that stress is the body’s reaction to disturbance. Depending on the cultural context, there are a variety of definitions of stress, whether it be the lack of inner peace, the loss of control, an individual’s responsibilities outweighing coping mechanisms or the body’s non-specific response to stressful stimuli. Despite highly variable perceptions of stress, some of its biomarkers are measurable. In fact, research in this area indicates that we often perform our best when our stress levels are quantified as “Eustress” or at a happy medium. Eustress refers to an amount of stress that is not too little to cause attention impairment and apathy, but also not too much to induce burnout, memory or executive functioning failures. So what can we do to balance out our stress levels?

Though it can sometimes feel like a chore, exercise has a plethora of benefits that boost resilience to stressors. According to Dr. Julio Ozores, one of the course’s UCSF-affiliated guest lecturers, exercising — especially when playing team sports — can reduce the risk of depression. Exercise increases feelings of bodily and emotional autonomy, and also can boost our confidence as we see our skills grow and improve over time. In group environments, we can also develop stronger senses of belonging while exercising, which discourages social withdrawal behavior (often a symptom of depressive episodes). Exercising outdoors might be even more beneficial: studies suggest that time spent exploring the outdoors (even just ten minutes per day, three times per week) reduces cortisol stress hormone levels. 

Spending time with friends might help relieve some stress, too. Humans are social beings with an innate need for companionship — in fact, building relationships is so crucial to our well-being that it plays a significant role in brain function and response to stressors. When we’re surrounded by people we care about (and who care about us in return), we find purpose: motivation to explore common interests, to engage in active lifestyles and to push through difficult times. When active, gratitude and empathy circuits in the brain help to suppress stress pathways, and the more you use them the more accessible they become in the future. 

Meditation has become a hot topic in scientific and cultural spaces alike, and in this class we delved into the myriad ways in which meditative practices have stress-relieving merit. While there has been significant research on the benefits of meditation, a key aspect of this practice that makes it particularly important for biological stress reduction is deep breathing. Deep breathing activates the vagus nerve to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” functions of your body when it is not in fight or flight mode. 

Meditation also changes amygdala activity in the brain. The amygdala is responsible for most of the brain’s emotional processing, and thus plays a significant role in fear and stress response. Studies show that mindfulness is associated with greater amygdala-prefrontal cortex (PFC) coupling, where the PFC acts to keep amygdala activity in check via a process called negative feedback (in essence, PFC activity interferes with and reduces amygdala activity). This effect has been observed even for brief focused breathing — just taking a few deep breaths can make a difference. If you also take this time to pause and name feelings and sensations, you can activate analytical thinking circuitry, which helps shut down stress response pathways in the brain.

Another mechanism for reducing stress is reshaping our relationship with it. In medical terminology, this mindset shift is referred to as cognitive reappraisal. This tool helps us change our perceptions of stressful stimuli so that we are better equipped to handle them. Though not necessarily a replacement for psychological counseling, cognitive therapy can be used as a tool to change our perspectives on and relationships with stress (more colloquially speaking: fake it ’til you make it). If there are recurrent stressors in your life, cognitive therapy might look like imagining that stressor as a challenge rather than an unwavering obstacle. One method to accomplish this is stress inoculation. For example, if you have a fear of public speaking, you can practice giving low-stakes speeches in front of the mirror, then in front of friends and eventually in front of larger groups. This incremental approach helps us build resilience to cope with stress in the long-term while making space to have control over and appreciate the process of doing so. This is especially useful for people with anxiety; cognitive therapy has been shown to relieve hyperexcitation of the amygdala for these individuals, thus helping to reduce the intensity of their stress responses. 

All things considered, sometimes the best remedy for a stressful day is simply getting a good night’s rest. During sleep — particularly deep sleep — our brains actively rewire connections, making sense of all the information it has processed throughout the day. Current research indicates that getting adequate amounts of sleep and allowing your brain to regroup inhibits anxiety, reduces irritability, decreases the probability that you will skip a workout and lowers the risk of stress increasing over time. 

As college students, we are at a unique moment in our lives when we’re constantly learning things about ourselves, rapidly forming new habits and relationships as we transition from one year to the next. Though sometimes overwhelming, these experiences also give us the opportunity to discover our personal owner’s manuals, harnessing the hardware of our brains and bodies to have greater agency over our reactions to stressful times both now and beyond our time at UC Berkeley.

Contact Sonoma Carlos at 


SEPTEMBER 23, 2023