Amanda Ripley

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Your Brain on Anxiety

25th Feb 2009 posted in Disaster Behavior

Tara Parker-Pope writes today that waiting for biopsy results affects stress hormone levels just as much as finding out you’ve got cancer. A new study shows that women waiting on breast biopsy results had abnormal cortisol profiles equivalent to women who had been told they had cancer.

I never fail to be amazed by the power of stress hormones. In this case, cortisol. Cortisol is some powerful stuff, and it shows up whether or not it is really needed. When it surges through your system, it raises your blood pressure, lowers your immunity to illness and makes it tough to think, among other things. It also helps you in a few ways (or it would help you if you were getting attacked by a predator…instead of waiting for a doctor to call you back). You don’t feel pain as acutely and you get a shot of energy should you need to run screaming from the room.

It’s a good reminder that the brain loathes uncertainty more than nearly everything else… more (almost) than cancer. Maybe that’s why people who feel like they have control over their lives (whether they do or not—remember, it’s the perception that matters) tend to perform better in disasters and recover more fully afterwards. They also tend to live longer. They are probably nicer, too. And they probably have great teeth. Damn those people!