Understanding depression and anxiety
Understanding depression and anxiety

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Understanding depression and anxiety

3.1 Adaptive value of developmental programming of stress

It has been tacitly assumed in the preceding section that the effects of stress on the brain are disadvantageous. However, there is another view, which makes sense if we consider brains as ‘survival machines’ that evolved to be moulded by experience. Our ancestors must have experienced stress and difficulty in their early lives, so it seems plausible that the developing brain evolved to cope with maltreatment.

From this view, early stress might trigger adaptive changes in the brain – changes that allow an individual to survive and reproduce in a dangerous world. Thus, an intense ‘fight or flight’ response, and constant alertness, might be exactly what is needed in some circumstances. This programme or strategy might give an individual an advantage in a dangerous, unpredictable environment.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to this postulated adaptation as high levels of vigilance and stress-responsiveness do physiological and psychological damage – in humans they are associated with hypertension, obesity, increased risk of suicide, accelerated aging and degeneration of brain structures, including the hippocampus. However, if survival and reproduction were enhanced by this strategy more than by the ‘laid-back’ alternative, the strategy would have to have been favoured in some situations.

From what has been described so far about stress, it is clear that an understanding of the effects of stress on the brain sheds a valuable light on the aetiology of depression and anxiety. But this is not the only knowledge of brain function that is important in this regard, as we shall now see.

SDK228_2

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371