Where stress lives in the brain

A new study from Yale University shows where people’s experience of intense emotion occurs in the brain, paving the way for new strategies to treat chronic stress.


Stress, anxiety and fear can have a debilitating impact on our lives, particularly as our society struggles to cope with a global pandemic and social unrest. This effect occurs, in part, because intense emotions activate the brain’s fear network, releasing hormones called glutocorticoids that trigger the fight, flight and freeze response.

Although we’ve long known of this brain-body process, we still know little about how these neural and physiological events are tied to a person’s “real-time” perception of stress.

In a clever study published in the journal Natural Communications, researchers at Yale University conducted a series of fMRI scans with sixty healthy adults. During the scans, participants viewed troublesome pictures such as disfigured faces, snarling dogs and filthy toilets, and were asked to report how distressed they felt.

Results revealed that while viewing these images, neural signals from the hippocampus (the brain’s memory network “hub”) reached brain regions associated with physiological stress responses. They also reached the dorsal lateral frontal cortex (DLFC), an area of the brain associated with emotion regulation and higher cognitive function.

Stronger activation between the hippocampus and DLFC while viewing these images was associated with lower participant reports of distress. Conversely, increased signaling between the hippocampus and hypothalamus was tied to higher levels of strong emotion.

These findings build on studies showing that individuals with anxiety, stress disorders and other psychological difficulties may show less activation of the DLFC, paving the way for studies exploring whether increasing connectivity between the hippocampal networks and the DLFC, possibly through eliciting positive memories, may buffer the effects of stress.

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