It sounds impossible that being stressed out can actually be helpful, right? But that’s what researchers from the Stanford University Medical Center and the University of Michigan Medical Center found in a study on brain function. The study used squirrel monkeys that were forced to cope with stressful situations; they had a significant increase in hippocampal neurogenesis, which is the ability to create new brain cells. The hippocampus is the part of our brain which is associated with learning and memory. In humans, the hippocampus also regulates emotion.
In another study focusing on the relationship between the hippocampus and depression, it was suggested that subjects who suffered from major depression had smaller hippocampal volumes than subjects who did not suffer from depression. Also, the size of the hippocampus correlated with the length of depression. Although researchers have not been able to conclude that depression is caused by shrinkage of the hippocampus, or vice-versa, the association between this part of the brain and depression is clear.
In the Stanford study, adult male squirrel monkeys were randomly assigned to two living conditions. In the first condition, six monkeys were housed with a familiar monkey for the duration of the 18-month study. In the second condition, six monkeys were secluded for three weeks and then housed with an unfamiliar monkey for nine weeks: this process was repeated for the duration of the study. At the end of the study, cell regeneration was compared between the two groups. Monkeys placed alone and then with new housing partners had a significant increase in brain cell regeneration compared to monkeys with consistent housing partners.
The results of this study suggest that coping with stress improves brain functioning. Although this study does not include human subjects, the findings could prove to be beneficial in the study and treatment of human depression. However, further research on hippocampal volume and depression regulation is needed.
Stress isn’t alone in helping fight depression, there may be benefits to being a worry wart too, “Worrying helps you process problems in a healthy way, because you can focus on the task, develop a plan, and most importantly weed out the negative emotions that can complicate clearer thinking.”