We’ve known that practices such as yoga, meditation and tai chi help reduce stress, but researchers are now learning more about why. In findingspublished in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, neuroscientists from the University of Pittsburgh shed new light on how the body responds to stress, and how certain types of exercises help soothe it.
The researchers were looking at areas in the cerebral cortex of the brain, tracing the circuits that link it all the way down to the adrenal glands—you’ve got one of those above each kidney—and the innermost part of the glands, called the adrenal medulla. In the past, scientists thought there might only be one or two areas in the cortex that related to the adrenal medulla. But the University of Pittsburgh researchers found there were instead multiple areas of the brain’s cortex connecting to the adrenal medulla, particularly, those associated with cognition and planning of movement.
“Our results turned out to be much more complex and interesting than we imagined before we began this study,” wrote senior author Peter Strick, Ph.D., who chairs the Department of Neurobiology and is the scientific director of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute.
The link between the cortical areas of the brain and the adrenal glands matters because the adrenals are in charge of “fight or flight” adrenaline responses—the same hormones released when we’re under a lot of stress. If there’s a cortex involved, that means we can have some control over our responses to stress.
For example, “If someone insults you, you don’t have to punch them or flee. You might have a more nuanced response and ignore the insult or make a witty comeback. These options are part of what the cerebral cortex provides,” writes Strick. But it also means we have the power to calm ourselves down, using our brains.
The researchers also noted that the motor areas in the brain provide a lot of input to the adrenal medulla, which may explain why exercises involving posture and axial body movement, such as Pilates, barre classes, ballet or yoga—things that require alignment and coordination—can help calm stress levels.
The researchers say their results show, overall, that there are direct circuits linking our cognition and our movement in ways that can profoundly affect our body’s reaction to stress. This suggests there are also ways we can control our internal states of chronic stress. It’s just one more reason to try a practice that appeals to you, whether it’s tai chi, yoga, Pilates or another form of meditative movement.