It may come as no surprise to any parent to hear that anxiety is the number one mental health difficulty children and adolescents face today. There are a myriad of different factors that contribute to the stress that children and adolescents experience, such as school, social, and familial expectations. Youth can be excellent at hiding their anxious symptoms not only from their parents but even from themselves! Some symptoms are easier to see while others take a keener eye to spot and may take more effort to uncover. 

Look for Physical Signs…

  • Tenseness
  • Jitteriness
  • Restlessness
  • Fidgeting
  • Sweating
  • Complaining of aches and pains (e.g., stomach, chest, or head aches)
  • Trouble breathing

It’s important to remember that any of these physical signs of anxiety can occur during everyday events. Any one of these occurring on their own, or with others, can be felt by every person at one point or another for both positive and negative experiences. When these physical signs occur frequently and are consistently displayed before or during a specific situation, there is likely something anxiety provoking about that situation. 

… And Subtle Signs

Less easy to notice are actions, behaviours, and thoughts that can fly under the radar. Notice what it is your child is doing and when they are doing it. Are they often late to leave for school? Do they procrastinate on difficult subjects but not on easier ones? Do they check things repeatedly, like locked doors, before doing something else? It’s just as important to notice what your child is not doing. Are they not studying, doing homework, going out with friends, or attending extra-curricular activities? Refusal to do something can be a subtle way to avoid situations that provoke anxiety. If you suspect your child is experiencing anxiety, talk to them about it to better understand what they are thinking. Listening to what they say and understanding their perspective can help uncover what they are worried about. Anxiety can grow when left unchecked and your child needs your support to cope with it. 

Massimo Di Domenico, M.A., is a therapist working under the supervision of Dr. Nalini Iype, C.Psych. and is also working towards the completion of his PhD in Clinical Developmental Psychology. He provides both treatment and assessment services to individuals of all ages – children, adolescents, and adults. Working with an integrative framework, he treats those suffering from depression and anxiety, difficulties in social relationships, and concerns related to parenting and family dynamics. For those seeking answers on how they, or their child, learn or work best, he also provides assessment services for learning disorders and ADHD.


Major life transitions can occur at any stage in life. Whether it is starting university or college and living on your own for the first time, starting a new job, becoming a parent, or experiencing a death or loss of a loved one, life transitions can evoke many complex feelings. When we experience a big life-altering change, we are often faced with many unknowns and a sense of unpredictability regarding our future. Confronting the unknown and uncertain can evoke feelings of stress, worry, fear, self-doubt, grief, and depressive experiences. While these feelings are normal when faced with a major life change, they can still feel intense and overwhelming. To support yourself or loved ones during a time of major life transition, it is important to remember to: 

  1. Acknowledge and validate your feelings—Sometimes our emotions can feel so overwhelming and intense because we don’t yet know why or what we are experiencing. Acknowledging that a life transition is likely to evoke strong emotions and finding new and healthy ways to identify and validate your feelings can help you navigate change. 
  1. Accept the inevitability of change— We are constantly changing, growing, and evolving in our lives and relationships. Change can be difficult and overwhelming, but it can also provide an opportunity for self-growth and development. Through experiencing change, we can discover new possibilities and parts of ourselves, which can be exciting and motivating!
  1. Reach Out and Connect—Sometimes experiencing a major change in your life can feel lonely and isolating. Connecting with loved ones, members of your community, or others who may be experiencing a similar life change can help you to navigate this difficult time. Engaging in psychotherapy can be another way to address any difficulties that you are facing because of a major life change. In the process of psychotherapy, you can learn new ways to navigate difficult emotions, and develop a deeper understanding and meaning about what this major life change means to you. 

If you are experiencing a major life transition, and wanting to better understand and navigate your experience, CFIR has counsellors, psychotherapists and psychologists who are available to support you!

Jennifer Bradley, M. A. is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at CFIR. She works with individuals experiencing a wide range of psychological and relational difficulties including life transitions, anxiety and stress, trauma, depression, mood and grief, interpersonal difficulties, and issues related to self-esteem. Jennifer is an integrative therapist with a particular interest in existential, relational, and psychodynamic approaches to psychotherapy. 


By Cherisse Doobay MSc.

One of the first things I ask people about when they start working with me is their nutrition – why would a therapist do that? There is a strong connection between the food we eat and our mood. The relationship between diet and mood is complex, and the specific effects of different food on mood can vary from person to person. However, research has shown that certain dietary patterns and nutrients can have a significant impact on our mental health, most notably depression and anxiety symptoms. 

One important factor is the balance of nutrients in our diet. A diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins, and low in processed and sugary foods, is generally considered to be healthy and can have a positive effect on mood. These types of foods provide the body with the necessary nutrients it needs to function properly, including essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. On the other hand, a diet high in processed and sugary foods can lead to fluctuations in blood sugar levels and contribute to feelings of irritability, fatigue, and low mood. 

Another factor that can affect mood is the presence of certain nutrients in the diet. For example, omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish and certain plant-based sources, have been shown to have a positive effect on mood and cognitive function. Similarly, vitamin B12, which is found in animal products, has been linked to improved mood and cognitive function.

In addition to the types and balance of nutrients in our diet, the overall quality of our diet can also have an impact on our mood. Research has shown that following a healthy, balanced diet can lead to improved mood and cognitive function, while a diet high in unhealthy foods can have the opposite effect.

It is important to remember that the relationship between nutrition and mood is complex, and the specific effects of different foods on mood can vary from person to person. However, following a healthy, balanced diet and getting adequate nutrients can have a positive impact on mood and overall well-being. So, the next time you’re feeling down, grab a broccoli crown! 

Cherisse is an integrative therapist and cognitive nutrition practitioner with a specialty in addictions for 17 years. She works with individuals, couples, and families to address a multitude of issues such as relationships, stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, depression, anxiety, and addictions. 

  1. Harvard Medical School (February 15, 2021) “Food and Mood: Is there a connection?” https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/food-and-mood-is-there-a-connection
  1. Firth, J, Gangswisch, J., Borsini, A., Wooton, R, Mayer.E. (November 9, 2020) “Food and mood: how do diet and nutrition affect mental wellbeing?” https://www.bmj.com/content/369/bmj.m2382

Why can’t I just focus!?

By: Dr. Peter Egeto, C.Psych (Supervised Practice)

Everyone has this thought run through their head when they’re having trouble focusing on a work task, school assignment, or other commitment. It is a very frustrating obstacle, so why can’t we just focus?

Attention is the first, and crucial step to apply our thinking power to a task. Without it, we’re unable to learn, problem solve, or think clearly. There are lots of reasons why our attention can be challenged. 

Anxiety often takes attention away from the task at hand. Evolutionarily, anxiety developed partly to help us survive by looking for threats in the environment. Although your project deadline may not be a life or death “threat,” the emotion still kicks in and draws your attention away from the work you’re trying to do.

Alternately, some people’s brains develop differently, and have trouble controlling their attention. This is referred to as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD have great difficulty focusing because they are easily distracted by other thoughts or things in their surroundings. It can feel like your head is a vortex of racing thoughts, which can make a simple task frustrating or daunting.

How can I focus better? 

Luckily, there are ways to optimize your attention. Completing a neuropsychological assessment is a good way to tease apart whether your attention is hindered by anxiety, or potentially ADHD. It can also offer solutions tailored to your unique issues. Anxiety management strategies can free up your attention, while ADHD can be managed with medication, therapy, or both. 


Each year, millions of Canadians suffer from mild to debilitating bouts of depression and anxiety. “It’s so hard to figure out what next steps to take when your attention, concentration, emotional distress and basic sense of vitality are so affected by declining mental health” says Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych, Centre Director at the Centre for Interpersonal Relationships in both downtown Ottawa and Toronto.

Figuring out your next steps isn’t so easy. Clients are often overwhelmed by the numerous choices and decisions that have to be made about treatment possibilities and who might be the appropriate mental health professional to help them.

Decades of research on depression and anxiety point to biological, attachment, developmental, childhood trauma, socio-cultural context, environment, emotional, cognitive, behavioural, personality and interpersonal factors as possible precipitators of symptoms. What’s causing you to be depressed and anxious can be complex to sort through.

“CFIR mental health clinicians employ a biopsychosocial model to understand and capture a broad picture of the factors that may be affecting your well-being. It’s not always so simple that there is only a sole factor underlying your symptoms—sometimes many factors have to be considered to address the different layers underlying a person’s distress” cautions Dr. Hakim, C.Psych., “and it’s important to find a practitioner that can understand your depression and anxiety in complex ways. For example, sometimes it’s not just about changing thoughts and how you are thinking about a situation.”

Choices and decisions also have to be made about treatment —medication and/or psychological treatment and what type of psychotherapy might be best for you. Adding to the burden of decision-making is the recent advent of computerized psychological treatments—where treatment involves minimal contact with a care provider. Dr. Hakim, C.Psych. offers several suggestions to help you wade through these complex waters.

“It’s always important to have a general physical health exam to rule out physical causes for your depression and anxiety. Your physician can help you with decisions about which medication might be best for you, and there’s even testing you can have done that can inform you about which medications might have lesser side effects for you. Physicians have different levels of training in mental health treatment and do provide medication options. You might want to also seek out a professional trained as a mental health practitioner along with your visit to your doctor”, according to Dr. Hakim, C.Psych.

Whether you decide to take medication or engage in psychotherapy as a first line treatment approach will depend on you. Numerous research studies, however, have been conducted to guide clients on this subject. Dr. Hakim, C.Psych provides insights from these studies; “Research shows that psychotherapy is effective for mild to moderate symptoms, and a combination of both medication and psychotherapy might be the way to go for individuals with severe and debilitating symptoms. Medication increases neurotransmitters in your brain and can make you feel better, and adding psychotherapy to the mix improves outcomes because the other possible factors underlying your depression and anxiety symptoms still have to be addressed.”

When it comes to choosing what type of psychotherapy might be right for you, clients have further complex decisions in front of them. Dr. Hakim, C.Psych. provides further guidance to help you sort through these decisions. “Some mental health care professionals provide clients with support to change the way they think about situations, or provide skills and strategies to deal with distress and symptoms (e.g., Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy). These types of approaches try to help the client to feel better by managing symptoms, yet there are often many potential factors underlying anxiety and depression. Other mental health care professionals will work with your past and present-day experiences to help you gain awareness and insight into your emotions, self and relationship patterns, self-protection and defences that interfere with healthy functioning. These approaches help you to find more adaptive responses to everyday life but requires a deeper exploration of and engagement with the individual’s emotions, self and past experiences (e.g., Psychodynamic Therapy).”

Some individuals may prefer to learn strategies to diminish symptoms and feel good without deeply understanding themselves by exploring their pasts and emotional reactions to every day life while others may want to understand themselves more profoundly. “The idea that our past influences our present-day experience is a commonly held notion in the field. The way we think and feel about ourselves, think and emotionally react and respond to others, and how we behave and relate to others in our present-day is highly influenced by our past experiences” according to Dr. Hakim, C.Psych. Her final word on this topic is “that finding a mental health clinician who can flexibly work with you and integrate different psychotherapy models might provide more opportunities to work on different factors underlying depression and anxiety symptoms.” This view of treatment is the basic philosophy that underlies the treatment approach offered by the over 75 mental health clinicians at Dr. Hakim, C.Psych.’s centre. They offer flexible treatment options to work with different factors underlying anxiety and depression, and can move between symptom and distress management to working with deeper underlying factors causing your distress.

Finally, Dr. Hakim, C.Psych. shares her perspective on computerized psychological treatment. ‘In Ontario, free computerized psychological treatment services are offered, which is good and I do refer my clients to these sites as an adjunct to the treatment I am providing. Computerized treatment isn’t for everyone and doesn’t necessarily capture the complex factors underlying a unique individuals struggles with depression and anxiety. Sitting alone in front of a computer with only intermittent meetings with a mental health care professional may not allow for the necessary support and treatment related to the numerous factors underlying symptoms. Depression and anxiety have attachment, developmental, emotional, personality and interpersonal factors that are difficult to address on a computer.”

The Challenges of Being Assertive and Setting Boundaries for Pleasers and Self-Sacrificers

Many people struggle with being assertive or setting boundaries. The prospect of setting limits or asserting that your needs be met can provoke anxiety as this may require some form of aggression or expression of anger on your behalf. Aggression and anger – in proper measure – can help clearly signal to others what you’re willing to tolerate and is implicated in your capacity to take up space when it’s appropriate.

Some people disavow their aggressive drives – because of conditioning within the family or the broader cultural surround – as they fear that it may negatively affect how others see them or even how they see themselves. However, disclaiming anger or aggressive drives when it may be needed doesn’t mean that these parts of you vanish; instead, it accumulates within, and it may eventually be experienced as resentment and bitterness toward others and the world. Indeed, many clients I see who attempt to preserve relationships by disavowing their need to set boundaries or assert themselves, swiftly cut people out of their lives. Or they displace their anger onto “safe” relationships that are ultimately not the source of their frustration. Others may direct their anger inward, which mutates into a nasty self-critic that sometimes ends in them physically hitting themselves in frustration.

Another common outcome for people-pleasers or non-asserters is burnout. Habitually prioritizing others’ needs over one’s own is untenable and may lead to exhaustion and symptoms of depression. During burnout, their identity as someone useful and helpful is compromised, making their dominant ways of maintaining closeness and connection unavailable to them. This experience can further exacerbate distress, as people in this situation often feel unable to communicate their needs to others – the language to do so may elude them.

Therapy can help people like the ones described above to understand the context of their people-pleasing habits. Everyone is born ready to assert their needs in the world. But, in a global sense, your experiences will shape your attitudes regarding whether being assertive is perceived as negative. Understanding how you went from being an infant who only knew how to need to someone who disavowed your needs can help reorient you to a more moderate space where you can set appropriate boundaries, and where a reciprocal exchange of needs with others is possible.

Mental health professionals at CFIR can also support you in addressing problems often associated with perfectionism, including anxiety, depression, anger, eating disorders and relationship problems.  Contact us to inquire more and to begin or continue on your journey toward making yourself and your mental health a priority.

Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych. (Supervised Practice) is a psychologist in supervised practice at CFIR’s Toronto office. He has provided clinical and assessment services in a variety of settings such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the McGill Psychoeducational and Counselling Clinic, and the Health and Wellness Centre within the University of Toronto. He has alsoI completed his Ph.D. in clinical and counselling psychology at the University of Toronto. In individual therapy, he help adults struggling with depression, anxiety, grief, as well as those trying to cope with the effects of past and/or current verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.

Self-Harm – It’s More Than You Think

What is Non-Suicidal Self Injury?

Non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI), commonly described as self-harm, involves deliberate acts (such as cutting) that directly damage the body but occur without suicidal intent. Typically, when we think of NSSI we think of individuals who cut, burn, punch, or pinch themselves. In the psychological literature, these behaviours are referred to as direct NSSI. In an ideal setting, individuals who engage in self-harm behaviours either independently seek out psychological support in the form of therapy, or are noticed to be engaging in self-harm by individuals close to them and are encouraged to seek help at that time.

Indirect NSSI

However, individuals can also engage in other self-harm behaviours that are not as clearly noticed by others, since the methods of self-harm do not directly lead to bodily damage. These behaviours are termed indirect NSSI. 

‘Indirect’ methods of NSSI can include:

  • Involvement in abusive relationships
  • Substance abuse
  • Risky or reckless behaviour (e.g., reckless driving, bar fights, unsafe sexual practices)
  • Intentionally putting one’s body into physical danger (e.g., ‘daredevil’ acts)
  • Disordered eating behaviour

Since these activities are not often identified as self-injury, and can even be missed as warning signs by therapists, hospitals, and primary care physicians, it is crucial to notice problematic behaviours before their severity increases.

Men and Self-Harm

For a variety of reasons, individuals who identify as male are more likely to engage in indirect self-harm than those who identify as female (St. Germain & Hooley, 2012; Hooley & St. Germain, 2014). One such reason that has been proposed is that behaviors that have often been labeled as traditionally male expressions of anger and frustration sometimes contain indirect forms of NSSI (e.g., punching walls, picking fights with others, overconsumption of drugs and alcohol; Green & Jakupcak, 2016). Adherence to these traditional male gender norms is also associated with difficulties articulating thoughts and feelings, which can further increase an individual’s risk of engaging in self-harm (Levant et al., 2003). As a result, some men might not readily identify the intentionality behind some of the harmful actions described above.

Finding Help

Psychologists and therapists at CFIR are able to diagnose and guide the treatment related to direct and indirect self-harm for all individuals. We provide support to children, adolescents, adults, couples, and families who themselves struggle with self-harm, or have loved ones who do. We help clients establish solid networks of physical and emotional care and support. We also provide specific psychological treatment for individuals who self-harm, supporting them through the cascading negative emotions that may precede or accompany instances of self-harm.

Dr. Brent Mulrooney, C.Psych. is a psychologist in supervised practice at CFIR (Toronto). He has substantial interest and treatment experience in the realm of family functioning and relationships, anxiety and mood disorders, work and school success, addictions, violence (especially violence in the home), trauma, and gender identity and sexuality. Brent holds a PhD in School and Clinical Child Psychology from the University of Toronto, as well as a Masters degree in Applied Social Psychology from Memorial University of Newfoundland.

10 Tips for Managing Holiday Stress in 15 Minutes or Less

by: Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, C. Psych.

Holidays bring us a lot of joy. But the increased demands and events at this time of year can also bring us a lot of stress. We tend to say that we are ‘too busy’ to tackle stress and instead of trying to manage it, we push ourselves to get through each day. Come January, many clients end up in my office burnt out. Managing your stress does not have to take hours each day. Just a few short minutes each day can help you not only cope during this busy time, but also prevent burn out down the road.
Here are ten tips that take less than 15 minutes each day to help you manage stress.

  1. Go for a 15-minute brisk walk. It could be around the building during a break, or around the block when you get home.
  2. Take ten, slow, intentional breaths. Breathe in through your nose counting to six, and exhale slowly through your nose counting to six. Try this while taking a shower, or standing in line at a store.
  3. Notice five things. Whether you are sitting in your office, in traffic, or watching your children play, say to yourself, ‘I notice the license plate in front of me,’ ‘I notice the red book on my shelf,’ or ‘I notice the colour of the lights.’
  4. 5-4-3-2-1 with your senses. Notice five things with your sense of sight (see previous). Notice four things with your sense of touch – the roughness of the chair you are sitting on, the smooth edge of the table, the warmth of your coffee cup. Notice three things you hear – the hum of the computer, a car buzzing by, a door opening. Notice two things with your sense of taste (e.g., the taste of toothpaste left in your mouth after brushing your teeth) and smell (e.g., the smell of fresh air). Take one deep breath in through the nose and slowly out through the nose.
  5. Talk to a friend, lover, or co-worker. Sharing with a significant other about what is contributing to your stress can help you problem solve or work through your emotions.
  6. Listen to music. It can be soothing to listen to music that puts you in a good mood.
  7. Try a guided relaxation or mindfulness exercise. I recommend this “Leaves on the Stream” exercise on YouTube. You can also download the app Head Space and get ten free short exercises to try each day.
  8. Let go of unhelpful thoughts. We all have them – the thoughts of worry, the thoughts of “what if,” the thoughts of the worst-case scenario, or predicting the future. First acknowledge that you are having these unhelpful thoughts, then try letting go of your thoughts and focusing on what you are doing in the moment.
  9. Stretch. We could learn a lot from watching a dog or cat. Every time they move, they stretch! Try lifting your arms over your head with a breath in, and as you let the breath out bringing your arms back down.
  10. Make a list. Writing out your to-do items can help unload the mental energy of trying to remember everything you want to get done. Try breaking items down into small, achievable tasks, and prioritizing items.

Finally, if stress becomes too difficult to manage, reach out for help. Trained psychologists and therapists are available at CFIR to help you manage stress, depression, and anxiety.

What’s Anxiety and How Is It Related to Stress?

by: Dr. Lila Z. Hakim, C.Psych.

Mood and anxiety disorders are among the most common types of mental disorders in Canada and have been shown to have a major impact on the daily lives of those affected.

SOURCE: Mood and anxiety disorders in Canada | canada.ca

Anxiety tends to be accompanied by a wide range of physical and psychological symptoms. Individuals experiencing anxiety may have physical complaints such as shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating profusely, or feeling dizzy. Chronic fearful arousal can interfere with sleep, concentration, and attention, and affect overall functioning. These physical symptoms are often accompanied by negative and self-critical thoughts about oneself, catastrophic fears, and thoughts of terrible things happening to oneself or loved ones. Some individuals will engage in certain behaviours (e.g., checking, counting, handwashing), or avoid certain places or social situations to deal with their anxiety.  Anxiety can manifest in different ways — individuals can struggle with different types of anxiety, including agoraphobia, generalized anxiety, panic, social anxiety, and specific phobias.

Anxiety may be rooted in difficult early or present-day life situations. For some of us, early childhood experiences in which we lacked appropriate and sufficient nurturance and support may have resulted in a vulnerable sense of self that is prone to anxiety in everyday life. For others, challenging, negative life experiences with family, friends, peers, and relationship partners may have undermined our safety and security in such a way that our confidence in our selves and others has been drastically altered.

Deep self-vulnerability may emerge when the unprocessed emotions and unmet needs associated with these past and present-day life events are not addressed. As a result of these experiences, we begin to think about, or emotionally react to our selves, others, and the world, in ways that constrict us from being able to move freely in the world or create relationships with others. We can begin to overly anticipate danger, or bad things happening to us, and engage in behaviours to cope with the anxiety. These behaviours then stop us from participating fully in life and become a further source of distress.
Sometimes stress, particularly when long-lasting, can overwhelm us and result in us feeling anxious. Some individuals have stress for days before tests, public speaking, or appointments, which impairs their ability to cope with life’s daily tasks. Their functioning becomes significantly diminished and our anxiety response to life increases. Being able to manage stress increases our sense of confidence, and improves the quality of our lives, and reduces our anxiety.

Work stress can also undermine our sense of emotional and physical well-being, and as a result, bring about chronic anxious feelings. Burnout can result from long-term stressors that are unresolved. Being able to cope with work stress is essential to prevent burnout. Work stress and exhaustion are caused by multiple factors that require attention to ensure we are creating a good quality of life in our work lives. Work stress and burnout can have a long-lasting impact on our sense of selves and our relationships when not addressed. When we are overly stressed and experiencing burnout, life’s smallest tasks can bring about anxious feelings. 

The Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Service at CFIR offers clients a comprehensive assessment and diagnosis of your anxiety issues to facilitate appropriate treatment planning. We employ short-term and long-term, scientifically-validated interventions to address the specific type of anxiety you are experiencing. Cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, and experiential approaches are employed to help you resolve issues related to anxiety or stress.

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Stress and the Brain

by: Ali Goldfield, M.A.

We all have stress in our daily lives. So much so that we often think nothing of running from place to place, eating on the go, and juggling work and family life. You have probably already heard that stress can wreak havoc with our immune systems, our sleep patterns and our ability to enjoy the things we used to, but did you know that stress can actually affect the size of your brain? 

Researchers know that trauma can significantly affect brain structure but one study done by researchers at Yale University now shows that everyday stressors, like a divorce, job loss, the death of a loved one or a serious illness can also affect our brain in the same way that one traumatic event can. These cumulative stressors, it seems, can lead to shrinkage in our brains, reducing the volume of grey matter and lowering our ability to further cope with adversity and may even lead to self-destructive behaviours such as addiction, overeating and depression. 

Past studies have shown that the stress response involves a brain region known as the amygdala, which sends out signals alerting us to any kind of threat. This results in the release of hormones, including cortisol, which prepare us for the flight or fight response to fend off the threat. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can cause brain neurons to shrink and it also interferes with their ability to send and receive information efficiently. This is just another piece of the puzzle in how prolonged stress can impair our ability to think and act in creative, flexible and healthy ways.

And it’s not only about stress shrinking our brains. In another study from Yale University, researchers compared the genetic makeup of donated brain tissue from deceased humans with and without major depression. Scientists found that only the depressed patients’ brain tissues showed activation of a particular genetic transcription factor, or “switch” that basically stops the genes from communicating. This lack of communication leads to a loss of brain mass in the prefrontal cortex. The scientists hypothesized that in the depressed patients’ brain, prolonged stress exposure led to disruption of brain systems. The depressed brains appeared to have more limited and fragmented information processing abilities. This finding may explain the pattern of repetitive negative thinking that depressed people exhibit. It’s as if their brains get stuck in a negative groove of self-criticism and pessimism. They are unable to envision more positive outcomes or more compassionate interpretations of their actions.

While the evidence is not conclusive, it makes a pretty good argument that stress and mental health issues that lead to stress do kill off our brain cells through the damaging effects of cortisol and through the disruption of the genes that facilitate neuronal connections. This shrinkage affects our cognitive abilities, our focus and our ability to concentrate. Since much in our lives is beyond our control, how can we prevent this type of cumulative stress from affecting our ability to deal with what life throws at us? 

The most important thing to remember is that the brain is plastic, meaning that there are ways to reverse the negative impact of stress on the brain. With the right tools and techniques, like meditation, exercise, proper diet (think Omega-3s), yoga and by maintaining strong social and emotional relationships, we can, in fact, counterbalance the damaging effects of stress and stop our brains from shrinking.

Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.