Stress and the Brain

M. Irons

"Stress is feeling that your ability to perform is exceeded by the demands you must meet." –  Dr. Herbert Benson

While it is true that without some stress we would not be able to function, excessive stress will ultimately wear you down and make you sick. Dr. Hans Selye studied the effects of stress throughout his life, and identified "dis-stress" as being the most damaging. He stated that this harmful stress had a distinct impact on health and could eventually cause a variety of body systems to deteriorate.

When Steve and I were at Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center our counselor Ron Burks gave us an overview of brain functioning to help us understand that the stressful experience of a high-demand group has a negative effect on a person's brain functions. I have supplemented his material with information from Dr. Amen's clinic, which uses SPECT scans to identify brain activity.

Brain diagram #1

Lobes of the brain that were calm prior to cult involvement become over-stimulated and dominant, while lobes that were formerly in control become passive. That is, areas of the brain slow down where previously there was a lot of neuronal activity; other areas that were previously quiet "heat up". This can actually be seen on SPECT scans, where active areas show up in bright red and inactive areas in blue.

Brain Anatomy

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain with the highest level of functioning. It's the critical thinking component, the seat of reason, judgment, empathy and conscience. 

The midbrain (the limbic system or "feeling brain") helps to set a person's emotional tone. When it is less active, there is generally a positive, more hopeful state of mind. When it is overactive, negativity can take over. The mid-brain provides the filter through which you interpret the events of the day.

The brain stem (the survival brain) is responsible for visceral bodily functions (cardiac, pulmonary, intestinal, etc.) and for self preservation. It exhibits aggression and stereotypical (repetitive) behavior and actions. 

Brain Function

The Cortex

  • The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the chief executive officer of the mind. It is the internal supervisor that guides, directs, focuses, and controls thoughts, behaviors and judgment--it is the most developed part of the brain. Our conscience, sense of right and wrong, and free will are housed primarily in this part of the brain.
  • When the PFC works properly, we are thoughtful, empathetic, compassionate, able to appropriately express our feelings, organized, and goal directed.  
  • Good PFC function doesn't mean that you won't make mistakes. Rather, it generally means you won't make the same mistake over and over again--you learn from past experiences. Individuals with poor PFC function don't seem able to draw on their past experiences.
  • The PFC helps concentration and attention span. It helps you focus on important information while filtering out less significant thoughts and sensations.
  • The PFC is also the part of the brain that allows you to express emotions, such as happiness, sadness, joy, and love by translating the raw feelings of the limbic system, the emotional brain, into recognizable feelings, emotions, and words
  • Underactivity or damage in this part of the brain often leads to a decreased ability to express thoughts and feelings, decreased attention span, distractibility, impaired short-term memory, decreased mental speed, apathy, decreased verbal expression, poor impulse control, mood control problems, decreased social skills, and overall decreased control over behavior.
  • The PFC sends quieting signals to the emotional and sensory parts of the brain. When the PFC is underactive, there is less of a filtering mechanism, and distractibility becomes a problem. Without proper PFC function, impulses take over, making it difficult to act in consistent, thoughtful ways.
  • When the PFC works properly, you have a good sense of right and wrong and you are able to match your behavior to your moral beliefs. You know what you want in life, and you are able to stay focused on the things that are most important to you. Despite distractions or obstacles, you stay on the path to your goals.
  • You empathize with others--you are able to get outside of yourself to see another person's opinion of point of view. You are able to apologize when you make mistakes, and you see how your behavior impacts others. You are able to focus and attend to conversations, follow through on commitments and chores, and organize your actions. You feel settled, and you are able to sit still. You show thoughtfulness. You tend to have a strong conscience, neither overbearing nor hostile, and you are led by doing good for yourself and others. You are able to fully exercise free will.

The Midbrain

  • This part of the brain helps to set a person's emotional tone and filter events.....With an overactive deep limbic system, you are likely to interpret neutral events through a negative lens. For example, if you have a neutral or even positive conversation with someone whose deep limbic structure is "negatively set", he or she is like likely to interpret the conversation in a negative way. When this part of the brain is "cool", or functions properly, a neutral or positive interpretation of events is more likely to occur.
  • The more trauma in our lives, the more emotionally set we become in a negative way.
  • The midbrain is also intimately involved with bonding and social connectedness. It is also responsible for translating our emotional state into physical feelings of relaxation or tension. This "deep limbic" translation of emotion is powerful and immediate. It happens with both overt physical threats and covert emotional threats.
  • When the limbic system is turned on, emotions tend to take over. When it is cooled down, more activation is possible in the cortex. Current research on depression indicates increased deep limbic system activity and shutdown in the prefrontal cortex.

Brain Functioning in an Abusive Group

These are the "Brain Biology" diagrams that were used at Wellspring to show what happens to a person's brain in an abusive group (and in any threatening situation, such as child or spousal abuse, the battlefield, concentration camp, etc.) as the cortex begins to function less and less, and the midbrain becomes more active.   

Brain diagram #2

The greater the stress and the longer it continues, the more brain activity becomes centered in the midbrain. When the stress is perceived to be life-threatening, activity regresses to the brain stem in a fight for survival. Wellspring believes that cults cause that regression by extinguishing the individual in favor of the group. It constitutes a death of the self.

On the Chemical Level, Stress Destroys Brain Function

In his book, Brain Longevity, Dr. Dharma K. Singh summarizes the research work of Robert Sopolsky:

"There are three essential ways that stress destroys optimal function of the brain, and blots out memory.

First, when cortisol is released in a stressful situation, it inhibits the utilization of blood sugar by the brain's primary memory center, the hipppocampus [a gland located within the brain]. If there isn't enough blood sugar in the hippocampus, it suffers an energy shortage, and the brain has no way to chemically lay down a memory. A person can experience an event, but have almost no recall of it. This accounts for the immediate, short-term memory deficit of people under stress.

Second, cortisol overproduction interferes with the function of the brain's neurotransmitters [chemicals]. Thus, even if a memory has been properly laid down in the past, it can no longer be easily accessed. In effect, the "lines are down," just like downed telephone lines in a storm. Brain cells just can't communicate with one another, and the mind becomes muddled. This is why I call cortrisol the "concentration killer." It's why people often become temporarily befuddled in high-stress situations.

Third, too much cortisol kills brain cells. [Cortisol is a hormone secreted by the adrenals under stress.] This happens when cortisol disrupts normal brain cell metabolism, and causes excessive amounts of calcium to enter brain cells. That excess of calcium eventually produces molecules called free radicals, which kill brain cells from within. Over long periods, excess cortisol can kill billions of brain cells this way."

How was this experienced in the Assembly?

The Cortex

The function of our own cortex to exercise conscience, judgment and free will was pre-empted by external authority. This caused internal conflict, but staying in the group required shutting down those aspects of ourselves. So voila! Less functioning in our prefrontal cortex. A sample mind control dialogue illustrates this.

For example, there were several situations where "saints" were reaching out to a handicapped person and providing transportation to meetings. They were told, "That kind of person is not welcome around here. It takes too much time from the Lord's work..." Empathy was squelched, feelings of frustration squelched, and a vague anxiety implanted. Good PFC functioning was replaced by midbrain agitation. The PFC interpreted your feelings for you, but when those feelings were unacceptable in the group, the PFC was blocked.

 Another example would be when you felt frustrated that you weren't allowed to visit your parents. Normal reasoning would call it frustration, would say the feeling was justified, and would come up with a solution. But that was definitely not acceptable. You were coerced to reinterpret that frustration as rebellion of the self. As this kind of thing happened over and over, the cortex eventually gave up trying to interpret the feelings. The unexamined feelings agitated the mid-brain based on the need for survival in the system.

Good PFC functioning helps you to avoid making the same mistake repeatedly. But behaviors that had negative results, such as exhaustion, were unavoidably repeated over and over. The cortex was blocked in trying to learn from past experience, and it stopped trying. 

As another example, the abusive system prevented people from knowing what they wanted in life and focusing on it, because the goals of the group took precedence. Personal desires and goals were labeled as "Self' and had to be "put to death". Again, PFC function was hindered.

The Midbrain

As activity in the cortex was diminished, the limbic system (midbrain) heated up with the frustrations and became dysregulated. The emotionally charged atmosphere of the Assembly also continually stimulated the limbic system. Life was intensely emotional. Meetings, especially seminars, were intense - "Wasn't that great, brother!" Relationships in brothers and sisters houses were always in a ferment over stewardships and consequences, there was anxiety about encounters with the leadership, anxiety about praying in public, anxiety about conflicting priorities, etc., etc.

Pervasive feelings of guilt and anxiety increased over time. The cause was fear of being found wrong about something, or having wrong feelings. It was wrong to resent intrusive control--that was "self". It was wrong to feel sorry for people who were being mistreated by the leadership. It was wrong to have close friends, and so on and on.

These contradictions to the reasoning of the cortex agitated the midbrain. Very interestingly, Dr. Jay Goldstein said of such limibic agitation in his groundbreaking book, Betrayal by the Brain, "I still believe that the mechanism of virtually all the CFIDS symptoms [Chronic Fatigue Immune Deficiency Syndrome] stems from limbic system dysregulation." This very possibly explains why some Assembly folks developed mysterious debilitating illnesses.


Under the increasing stresses of the Assembly, the functioning of your "internal supervisor" was diminished. Internal supervision was replaced by external supervision. The external authority was accepted, as the functions of self-preservation unconsciously took over in the brain. The extent to which this happened in each person varied, depending on many factors, including:

  • How many of the Assembly stressors were you subjected to? What Assembly were you in?
  • Were you an adult, or a child whose brain was developing very quickly?
  • What was your experience of major stressors prior to the Assembly?
  • Were there areas of your life, such as employment or a ministry, where you were able to maintain a higher level of PFC functioning?

The effects of Assembly stress may persist long after you have left the group. For second-generation adults, some of the effects on your nervous system are permanent. The life challenge is to learn to identify them and retrain your brain. The expertise of a trauma-informed counselor may be invaluable.

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