Posted on: February 26, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Valerie Olivares, JRN 111 Student

The adult brain has 100 billion nerve cells. To put that number into perspective, astronomers estimate there are also about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, meaning for every nerve cell in your brain, there is an accompanying star in our galaxy.

Dr. Julia DiGangi explored a few of those brain cells Wednesday during Moraine Valley’s 14th annual psychology program, “Your Brain in Times of Adversity: Stress and Finding Resilience.” The event was cosponsored by the psychology department and the Liberal Arts division.

The program centered on useful, practical ways of understanding the brain and answering the question of what extreme stress does to the brain.

Dr. Julia DiGangi is an expert on the effects of stress on the brain.

It’s not hard to guess from the 3D model and cross section poster of the brain decorating her home that DiGangi is a neuropsychologist. The founder of NeuroHealth Partners, she has more than 20 years of first-hand experience treating, examining and exploring the human brain.

DiGangi is “known for her engaging and relatable communication style, which allows her to teach people how to effectively use their brains to live better, more emotionally intelligent lives,” according to Moraine psychology professor Nick Shizas, who co-organized the event with professor Cara Williams.

DiGangi shared her expertise beginning with the question: What’s your brain doing all day?

“Well, your brain is really making countless numbers of calculations every single day of your life,” she said.

More specifically, calculations on patterns. Everything the body experiences–sight, sound, smell, taste and touch–is all taken in by the brain to form calculations.

“Your brain is fundamentally in the business of making predictions,” she said. “It’s making predictions of what patterns will be there and what patterns will not be there.”

How we act on these predictions depends on which side of the brain takes the lead. The balance between these two sides of the brain is called functional connectivity.

Chronic stress can cause problems such as depression.

To illustrate the concept, DiGangi likes to use what she calls the “one brain, two runners” analogy. The brain can be divided into two different runners: the sprinter, which is the emotional brain, and the marathoner, which is the thinking brain.

“Optimal performance of your life, how smart you are, how cool, calm, and collected you are, how socially effective you are, how connected you feel to other people, how creative you are, how empathic you can be, all that stuff depends on keeping those runners in the zone,” said DiGangi.

What Dr. DiGangi means by “keeping the runners in the zone” is keeping both sides equal. One should not have more power than the other.

What causes the runners to leave the zone? Chronic stress and trauma.

The danger with chronic stress is the amount of cortisol entering the body. DiGangi explains, “Your body only has so many resources, and that stress system is saying ‘We’re always going to prioritize keeping you alive in the next 5-10 minutes over anything else.’’”

This system is great when you’re in immediate danger, but when there is no physical threat, the toll on the body becomes significant. Each time the system is activated, the body depletes vital resources essential for your health When this process repeats over and over again, mental and physical problems such as depression and heart disease can occur.

Human beings are incredibly resilient.”

Dr. Julia DiGangi

Trauma is the other side of Dr. DiGangi’s expertise. She defined trauma as a violent violation to the pattern you predicted. For example, if you predict your neighborhood is safe to walk home alone at night and then you get mugged, this is a violent violation to the pattern you predicted.

After the many traumatic events we’ve endured over the past year—the killing of George Floyd, the recent events in Washington D.C, the fear of illness, and nearly a year of profound isolation—we are experiencing a phenomenon DiGangi calls “collective trauma.”

So what makes trauma so bad?

As DiGangi explained it, we should think of the brain as a pattern detector. Trauma disrupts the brain’s patterns, causing dysregulations. Essentially, trauma confuses the brain, and confusion between the two “runners” can have harmful side effects.

Part two of the annual psychology program will take place via WebEx on May 5.

Not surprisingly, several systems become affected, DiGangi explained: “When one runner or the other runner leaves the zone, you experience emotional distress, emotional volatility. It’s when your runners leave the zone when people feel numb or under-aroused.” You might also experience poor problem solving and even trouble remembering.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of uncertainty we face today, but there is a silver lining. There is hope.

“The good news is that there’s a lot of scientific evidence about how we can think about our brains and protect those runners so they can stay functionally connected,” DiGangi said.

DiGangi plans to expand on how to heal from adversity and create a more resilient mind in part two of her program, which is taking place at 11 a.m. May 5. The program, entitled “Mental Health in 2021: Healing from Adversity and the Mechanics of Behavior Change that Lasts,” is free and open to the public via WebEx.

“Human beings are incredibly resilient,” she said. “We know if someone is traumatized, overwhelmingly we expect that person to fully recover. Just like if I’m walking down the street and I fall and bust up my knee, if I do what I need to do, if I rest it, clean it out, bandage it up, I don’t need to do anything else. I need to get out of the way of my own body’s natural brilliant resilience.”