• New research finds brain flexibility is key to stress management. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Scientists have studied brain imaging to determine how different people react to stress.
Jody Phan

22 Jul 2016 - 10:57 AM  UPDATED 22 Jul 2016 - 10:57 AM

By now, we’re aware of the stressful effects busy modern life can have on our mental, physical and emotional health.

Rajita Sinha from the Yale Stress Center in the US  explains that while there is “a drive to cope and to survive” in all of us, she wanted to take a deeper look into why some of us seem to cope better with stress than others.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sinha and her co-authors used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe and survey participants’ reactions to stress.

Thirty healthy individuals underwent fMRI scans in six minute sessions – during which they were shown 60 stress-inducing images such as people being stabbed, shot, maimed and chased.

There is “a drive to cope and to survive” in all of us.

The control group were shown neutral images of chairs, lamps and tables.

Following the scans, participants were asked a series of questions to assess their coping mechanisms for handling stress – such as alcohol consumption, eating behaviours and sensitivity to arguments.

Researchers noticed the subjects who showed more flexible neural responses in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex – where emotions and decision making are regulated in the brain – were better at controlling stress.

“Higher levels of neuroflexibility in this area of the brain helped predict those who would regain emotional and behavioural control during stress,” said Sinha.

The research also found that the subjects with more neuroflexibility were also less likely to report using unhealthy coping mechanisms such as binge eating or excessive drinking.

“Higher levels of neuroflexibility in this area of the brain helped predict those who would regain emotional and behavioural control during stress."

These findings are an important step towards more research on effective techniques for increasing flexibility in this region of the brain, thus helping people to better cope with stress.

In the meantime, there are ways to give your brain the “stretch” it needs to respond to stress better.


Taking 10 minutes or so to disconnect from stressful triggers of daily life doesn’t only increases self-awareness and calms the mind, it can also increase neuroflexibility.

“We can intentionally shape the direction of plasticity changes in our brain, says neuroscientist Richie Davidson at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“By focusing on wholesome thoughts, for example, and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brains and shape them in ways that can be beneficial.”

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Say ‘No’

In 2013, researchers at the University of California in San Francisco found that people who had more difficulty saying ‘No’ were more likely to experience stress.

Over-committing to things in your work and personal life can lead to feeling frazzled, tired and stressed.

“In adult life, saying no keeps us strong. We are protecting our own boundaries and increasing our own strength each time we are clear and give out clear signals about our boundaries. It helps us take control of our time, space, activities and social life,’ wellness coach Susie Pearl told Huffington Post.

Dose up on omega-3

Omega-3 fatty acids are considered the ultimate brain food, and can be found naturally in fish as well as plant-based foods.

A 2008 study found that omega-3 fatty acids increase grey matter in the brain, and are essential to brain neuroplasticity.

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