September 23, 2019

Your brain on stress

Our front lawn is an eyesore. It’s an ugly mixture of weeds, a few light-green blades of grass and mostly dirt, and although that combination may be somewhat more acceptable now that Los Angeles is in the midst of our drought, it’s been like that for years. No question that landscaping is a low priority for us.

With a teenage son with serious developmental disabilities, our limited resources of time and money are often spent taking care of him and paying for experts, such as weekly sessions with a private speech therapist, or for a babysitter, because he still requires adult supervision and assistance at all times.

Like many parents of children and teens with special needs or chronic health conditions, the problem of a time deficit isn’t just about the actual hands-on time — it’s also the brainpower that goes into planning ahead, problem solving, plus a fair amount of anxiety and worrying.

It turns out there’s actual science at work here. In a recent article called “Rethinking Poverty” by Elisabeth D. Babcock in the online Stanford Social Innovation Review, Babcock talks about how recent discoveries in brain science can help us understand barriers low-income families (and, by extension, others who are dealing with chronically stressful situations) face in trying to get ahead.

Babcock writes,  “According to an emerging body of brain science, the stresses that come with being poor negatively affect the strategic thinking and self-regulation skills that people need in order to break the poverty cycle. These skills, known as executive function (EF) skills, are fundamental to our ability to solve problems, to multitask, to juggle priorities, to control impulses, to delay gratification, and to persist in the pursuit of goals.”

Other recent discoveries in brain science demonstrate that stress compromises memory, making it harder for people to remember several things at one time. Constant stress can also make it more difficult for people to maintain mental flexibility, to shift back and forth between potential approaches to solving problems, and to weigh the future implications of current decisions. 

At Babcock’s anti-poverty agency, Crittenton Women’s Union in Boston, the staff helps clients cope with what she calls the  “bandwidth tax” of living a highly stressful life by providing them with trained, individualized coaches who help them create new decision-making strategies and, in turn, boost their internal executive function competence.

Previous disability-related studies showed that mothers of teens and adults with autism experience a level of chronic stress comparable to combat soldiers and struggle with frequent fatigue and work interruptions. These mothers also spend significantly more time caregiving than those of children without disabilities. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison detailed the daily experiences of mothers of adolescent and adult children with autism over a period of eight successive days. On four of those days, the researchers measured the women’s levels of cortisol, a hormone released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. Their levels of the hormone were found to be significantly lower than normal, a condition that occurs under constant psychological stress.

So, what can be done to reduce this chronic stress burden? Aside from hiring a coach to help retrain the over-stressed brain, other emerging strategies use a peer-directed, meditation-oriented approach to reduce parental stress, anxiety and depression among mothers who have a child with a developmental disability. 

As reported on the website “Disability Scoop,” researchers at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development found that mothers who participated in six 90-minute treatment sessions experienced less stress, anxiety and depression while reporting better sleep and life satisfaction. Initial assessments showed that 85 percent of the mothers had elevated stress, 48 percent were clinically depressed, and 41 percent had anxiety disorders. 

In the course of the study published in the journal Pediatrics, 243 mothers of children with developmental disabilities such as autism, intellectual disabilities and cerebral palsy were randomly assigned to participate in one of two interventions. The first treatment was a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program that included breathing exercises, deep-belly breathing, meditation and gentle movement, while the second treatment took a different, more psychological approach that focused on exercises promoting gratitude, forgiveness, grace and optimism in order to temper emotions like guilt, worry and pessimism. Both interventions were led by other mothers of children with disabilities who had undertaken four months of training on the curriculums. Although both of the interventions were effective, the mothers in the mindfulness-based stress-reduction program showed the greater improvement.

Getting these types of mindfulness training officially recognized as effective treatments for anxiety and depression, and paid for by health insurance companies, would go a long way to help the many who suffer from daily overloads of stress. As for me, I realize I need to breathe deeply, take more yoga classes and maybe call a gardener. 

Michelle K. Wolf writes a monthly column for the Jewish Journal. Visit her Jews and Special Needs blog at