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How Stacked Stressors Take A Toll On Your Brain

Dr Daniel Amen and Tana Amen BSN RN On The Brain Warrior's Way Podcast

In Tana Amen’s upcoming book, “The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child”, she inventories the packed bag of stressors she carried early in her life. Luckily for her, she found a way to build strength out of her chaos. But what happens when stressors in your own life begin to stack to a seemingly insurmountable height? This episode features a discussion in which Tana and Dr. Amen describe what stacked stressors can do the brain and body, and how you can keep your mind under control while you remove some of that weight off your shoulders.

For info on Tana Amen’s upcoming free live virtual event, visit tanaamen.com/event

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Daniel Amen, MD:

Welcome to the Brain Warrior’s Way podcast. I’m Dr. Daniel Amen.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And I’m Tana Amen. In our podcast, we provide you with the tools you need to become a warrior for the health of your brain and body.

Daniel Amen, MD:

The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is brought to you by Amen Clinics, where we have been transforming lives for 30 years using tools like brain SPECT imaging to personalize treatment to your brain. For more information, visit amenclinics.com.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

The Brain Warrior’s Way podcast is also brought to you by BrainMD, where we produce the highest quality nutraceuticals to support the health of your brain and body. To learn more, go to brainmd.com.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Welcome back. As we’re going through The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child, there are just so many issues.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I’m not sure how to take that.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Do you often say to your a psychiatrist dreaming?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

No, you often say that. I don’t say that. You said that.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And you have been.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

At least I’m not a psychiatrist nightmare.

Daniel Amen, MD:

This psychiatrist’s dream because you’re so strong, but yet that was born out of chaos and stress.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Daniel Amen, MD:

And so we talked about the molestation. We talked about losing your voice. And so as you go into adolescence, a whole bunch of things sort of came together from developing early. And a lot of people don’t understand, but as a child psychiatrist, when you develop early, it causes all sorts of stress.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah, it did.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And psychological issues. Your mom’s chaotic relationships and her problem with the picker. So where do we go?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So one of the things that I think is … First of all, I want to relate this back to people. The whole reason I wrote this book was to relate it back to people that we hear from all the time.

Daniel Amen, MD:

[crosstalk [00:02:31] And teenagers.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And I don’t think I’m alone. I think I’m pretty typical. Well, I don’t know if I’m typical, but I think I’m not that uncommon. My story is not that uncommon really. Already, I’ve been hearing from so many people on social media saying, “My story was like your story,” and that’s really why I wrote it so that people would understand. It’s not that uncommon and you’re not alone, but what happened was my teenage years, I think, were some of the most stressful years because these stresses began to stack, and they stacked quickly. So in addition to developing really early and looking much older than I was, I didn’t … And it’s funny. Now girls change their pictures. They all sort of look that way. They’re sort of used to it. We didn’t have social media back then. So if you looked like that, you got this insane amount of attention for the way you looked and not from boys. I mean, from men.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And so it began to be weird. It just began to be weird. I told you my, in the last episode that my dad, my stepdad called me sexy bitch. And that was sort of a nickname that I had. And he didn’t, he thought it was hilarious. He didn’t really mean that much by it, but I started to develop this code red identity crisis, if you will. So I hated the attention I got. I was really young. I mean, I was 14 when it started, nickname at school became jugs and at home it was sexy bitch. And I didn’t like it, but if I went out, I started to try to cover up. So I’d cover up with a sweatshirt. I’d go out with no makeup and then I would get no attention, or worse people would say, “Are you okay?” Because they were used to me looking differently, right? And when that happened, I began to realize that I began to crave the attention that I hated. And that’s when I began-

Daniel Amen, MD:

[crosstalk [00:04:13] So you wanted it, but you didn’t like it?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I didn’t like it, but I needed it.

Daniel Amen, MD:

But you wanted it.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I began to need it.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Oh, that’s so interesting. So just to give you context of wanting versus liking, I’m working on a new book called Happy, the Neuroscience of Feeling Good in Four Decisions and Four Questions. And we talk about dopamine. So that’s the hit you get when somebody notices you, but so it can make you want it again, but you might not necessarily like it. So if you think of someone who smokes, they want the cigarette, but they often don’t like it. They’re really doing it to satisfy the addiction and they hate it because they know it’s causing cancer and making them smell and it’s expensive and so on. And so you wanted it because the attention fed your reward circuits. So that’s what dopamine does, gives us reward. But you didn’t really like it. It set up-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

[crosstalk [00:05:19] It was really uncomfortable.

Daniel Amen, MD:

… a conflict.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah. And I began to sort of hide, if you will. So it’s like, “This is what people expect me to look like,” so I would do it because I thought that it’s what was expected of me, but I almost felt like a performing monkey. It was a little weird and I was really young. So 14, 15, 16. And then it began to stack because someone says, “You should start modeling,” and I started modeling, and then that was a whole ugly world at that time, especially. So there was a story about a producer in the book that is just a mess. And these things began to happen quickly. And I didn’t have supervision. My mom would always tell me, I mean, she was doing the best she could, she worked so many hours and she’s like, “I’m just so happy. I’m so lucky. You’re such a good kid that I can trust you. I’m so lucky that I can trust you and that you don’t get into trouble.” And I wasn’t looking for trouble. It was just there. All the time.

Daniel Amen, MD:

It was finding you.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

It was finding me. And so, but what happened was all of a sudden, it sort of culminates into this date rape situation. The last, the final stressor, I think, before the dam broke, was a date rape. And at that point, it just came crashing down.

Daniel Amen, MD:

What happened? This was with a guy you actually liked.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I liked him. Yeah. It was weird. And then it just … I don’t want to go into detail. It’s not something I really want to talk about in detail on a podcast, but it was an ugly situation and it, again, confused me because it’s like, “Did I ask for it? Wasn’t my fault? Was that really rape? That wasn’t rape.” I couldn’t identify what it actually meant and whether it was my fault or whether … And all of a sudden I began to have these thoughts I hadn’t had since I was a child. When I was really young, I actually thought I was stupid because I was behind in school. And then I figured out, “Oh, I’m actually really smart,” once I got older and was more cognitively developed. And I started school when I was four, and so I was way behind.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Don’t do that.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah. I was way behind.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Do not start children in kindergarten when they’re four.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Right? If you are sort of on the cusp, like I was on the cusp, my birthday’s in July.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Mine was in December.

Daniel Amen, MD:

So you were six months. And for me, if I was my parents, it would have held me back another year, but it’s so early, and it puts kids behind for a long time.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

And it then really affects your self-esteem.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Correct.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So I used to think I was stupid when I was young. And now all of a sudden fast forward in this date rape happens, and I, for the first time in a long time, began to wonder, “Maybe I am really stupid. Maybe I’m not that smart because these things keep happening to me.” It never really occurred to me that it’s because I lacked supervision or I lacked guidance or I lacked support. That didn’t occur to me. What occurred to me was these things don’t happen to other girls like they happened to me and of course, they do. I just didn’t know it. And so all of a sudden, one day I find myself over a toilet bowl and I couldn’t explain it. I didn’t really see it coming.

Daniel Amen, MD:

Over a toilet bowl, making yourself throw up?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Right.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And you were how old?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I want to say it was, I just turned 17. Yeah. And it was just a really hard time. And I mean, it sort of came crashing down and that was the outcome. Yeah. So that was my beginning into this new struggle with this eating disorder. I wouldn’t tell anybody. Well, at the time my mom found out, took me to an eating disorders clinic, and they’ve made such, like my idea of how it should have been handled. That wasn’t my idea of how it should have been handled. And it was so dramatic. I’m like, “I didn’t come here to be labeled. I came here to get help for my anxiety” and they didn’t do that. And so I never went back. I refuse to go back and I promised my mom I wouldn’t do it again if she didn’t take me back. And I learned to use exercise to control my anxiety. So I thought that I’d overcome the eating disorder. I’m like, “I’m strong. I’m good. It’s all good.”

Daniel Amen, MD:

[crosstalk [00:09:20] So you shifted it from making yourself throw up to … ?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Oh yeah. Extreme exercise. I would, two and a half hours of just like beating myself up, even if I was sick. It didn’t matter seven days a week, and I would get depressed if I didn’t.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And exercise is a treatment for depression.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah. Well, it became my drug for sure. And it also was a form of purging, but I didn’t know that. And so I started to struggle, I just sort of shifted it. Now was that better for my body than what I was doing? Probably, but it, I never really dealt with it. So for years, I just didn’t deal with it. I kept putting a bandaid over it. But when exercise was taken away from me when I was diagnosed with cancer and I no longer could exercise it, the eating disorder reemerged. It had been years.

Daniel Amen, MD:

[crosstalk [00:10:05] As did the depression?

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah. And it had been years since I struggled with that, and then all of a sudden it was right there, and then I realized, “Oh, maybe this isn’t as easy to just get rid of as you think. Maybe it doesn’t just go away,” but I couldn’t tell anybody.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And so some of the lessons in that story is if you don’t deal with the trauma …

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Stacked stressors, first of all, stacked stressors make a difference. It’s like, I think we can deal with sometimes one thing or even two things, but when they begin to stack, there are just, if you don’t have the right support system, if you don’t have the right guidance, the right situation that you’re in where someone can help you, where you can talk to someone, it can quickly send you into a spiral, a downward spiral. So I think the stacked stressors are a big part of it.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And so someone listening has a teenage girl or a teenage boy that’s struggling either with their eating, their behavior-

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

[crosstalk [00:11:05] Body dysmorphia.

Daniel Amen, MD:

… their mood, what should they do? What do you wish … because your mother tried to get you help.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

She did.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And you said, “I’m not going back.”

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So I would hope-

Daniel Amen, MD:

Because parents have that problem as well.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

I hope that treatment has changed since then. That’s my hope. I mean, I went to UCLA. You would think that that would have been like the best. They just freaked me out. I mean, they had this, they had a code blue while I was there. Some 17 year old girl died and I’m like, “Wait, what?”

Daniel Amen, MD:

It was an eating disorder unit.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

Yeah, but I didn’t know you could die from it. And I’m hearing all of this-

Daniel Amen, MD:

[crosstalk [00:11:38] Yeah, 10% of people with anorexia.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

But I didn’t know that, and so for someone who just thought she was going in for treatment for anxiety, it was so overwhelming. And I was so terrified by the time I came out of there, that rather than wanting to get help, I felt more shamed and I felt more scared, and so I just like retreated into myself.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

So the first thing I would say is get help, but know where you’re getting help from. I like the approach we take in the Four Circles. It’s not just a psychological issue. It’s not just because your mother is messed up or whatever, there’s a biology to it. Are your hormones out of balance? Mine were. I didn’t know it. So I had thyroid … They think I had my thyroid cancer starting at about 13, but who knew? So, and they said I definitely had Hashimoto’s, so there’s a biology. There’s a psychology. Certainly I was ripe for that, right, with everything going on in my family. But there’s a social aspect, which that was a terrible time in my life from what, with my social circle. And there’s a spiritual component and I was totally disconnected spiritually.

Daniel Amen, MD:

And I don’t think we talked about. You had switched schools.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

[crosstalk [00:12:44] Yeah.

Daniel Amen, MD:

… which is one of the hardest things to do. So when we come back, let’s talk about that. And one of the lessons, and I’ve certainly learned this, is be very cautious about switching a child’s social circle in junior high or high school because it can really disrupt their development. Stay with us.

Tana Amen, BSN RN:

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