How Stress Promotes Anxiety
Stress is ever-present in today’s society, and excessive exposure is one of the major precipitating factors in the development of several chronic health conditions. Among these are mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety disorders, in which stress is an underlying factor. Dr. Matthew Hill, Canada Research Chair in Neurobiology of Stress, aims to understand how stress gets under our skin and into our brains. One mechanism he has identified is the involvement of stress with the endocannabinoid system—natural compounds in the brain that are similar to the active ingredient in marijuana. Hill has shown that the endocannabinoid system is crucial, under normal conditions to our ability to recover from and adapt to stressful situations. However, following chronic exposure to stress the endocannabinoid system becomes compromised, and the loss of this natural buffer system results in stress systems in the brain becoming more sensitized. This sensitization occurs through nerve growth within regions of the brain, such as the amygdala, that promote anxiety-like behaviour and make it easier to release stress hormones such as cortisol. Hill has also found that people with stress-related mental illnesses, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, have lower endocannabinoids levels. Hill now aims to find whether the endocannabinoid system represents a viable target for the development of a new class of drugs for the treatment of stress-related mood and anxiety disorders. Hill’s research could result in new treatments for the growing epidemic of mental illnesses in our society.