“The Angel and the Assassin” tells the story

Stress Affects Our Whole Body

Stress affects our whole body. Every system, every organ, every cell. It’s well-documented that it affects our immune response, reduces our ability to think clearly, and impairs our ability to effectively digest and absorb the nutrients from our food. In addition, making stress chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol reduces our ability to make all of the other hormones we need to function, including our reproductive and growth hormones. Some of the notable outcomes of stress are weight gain, irritability, insomnia, and brain fog.

Does this sound like you? Or perhaps someone you know? Well, we ARE in a pandemic with an as yet indeterminate end. And, here in the US, we are selecting our President. That’s a lot already. Add in the everyday stuff of work deadlines, bills, and parenting and the grand total is lots of stress.

Some Stress is Good

I would like to make an important clarification about stress. Some stress is good. The term for this is “eustress” as compared to distress, or what we tend to label simply “stress”. Eustress, or positive stress, is what we feel when we feel motivated to accomplish something. You’re energized and excited to get it done. And, once you’re finished, you return to what is called calm readiness, or a peaceful alertness. The practice of having some stress and returning to calm readiness over and over grows our resilience, which is our ability to adapt.


On the other end of things is stress that doesn’t help us accomplish anything, such as emotional, environmental, physical and mental stress. It just wreaks all kinds of havoc on our body and mind. This is the kind of stress that, when experienced before age 9 or so, and compounded and not abated, eventually results in physical damage to some part of our body decades later. There was a huge survey conducted by Kaiser from 1995-97 called ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences survey) that revealed the correlation between adverse childhood experiences and adult health status. They label it toxic stress if it is cumulative. It’s been over twenty years since the discovery of the relationship between childhood stress and adult illness, and healthcare is finally getting on the bandwagon, I’m pleased to say. In fact, in California, where I live, there is a program called ACEs Aware (acesaware.org) that is getting information out to healthcare providers on how to screen for ACEs and provides info about what we can do to help ourselves and our children heal from and prevent ACEs. It’s fabulous to read our Surgeon General’s office website telling us we need to reduce stress and to help our children get through these adverse experiences by reducing our stress and theirs. They suggest mindfulness, movement, positive social interaction, good food, and good sleep. I’m really happy this is a priority for this state. It’s a great start.

To recap, we know that there is a direct relationship between long-term stress and our physical health, and the more ACE’s we have, the higher chance for adult illnesses, such as diabetes (Type II), obesity, and heart disease, to name a few.

Recent Scientific Evidence About Stress

Ok. Now I’m going to tell you something next that is brand new and very intriguing and will completely change how you look at how our brain and body function together. This is really new news—discovered within the last two years. These very recent findings reveal that this toxic stress also results in the destruction of neurons. Neurons are the cells which transmit info in the brain. So, what this means is toxic stress destroys our brain, and particularly in some people, the hippocampus, which is involved in creating memories. This new information may explain why there’s been a huge increase in early-onset dementia and dementia itself (1 in 9 adults). Brain cell death can also explain the dramatic rise in childhood anxiety and depression, and also the rise in conditions such as autism and ADD.

Allow me to explain. Besides neurons there are other kinds of cells in our brain. The kind that are destroying the neurons are called microglia. We’ve known their function to be to support and help our neurons, eating up debris and dead cells. Within the last twenty years, it was discovered that they are also involved in the natural pruning back of the no-longer-needed neurons during childhood and adolescence. The question was asked if the microglia could get turned “on” and stuck there and continue to prune back healthy neurons in adults. In short, the answer is yes.

The Angel and the Assassin

In the book, “The Angel and the Assassin” published in January 2020, science journalist Donna Jackson Nakazawa talks about the newest scientific discoveries about microglia and answers the question. As the title suggests, these cells which were previously known to be angels, supporting our neurons, eating up any that had died, and pruning back when needed, have recently been proven to also act as assassins and will actually seek, kill and eat healthy neurons. And, what makes them go from angels to assassins? It seems to be an overreactive immune response caused by, you guessed it, toxic stress. Interestingly, one person may have an overreactive immune response to toxic stress which shows up in the body, such as fibromyalgia, while another person may have it show up in the brain as depression. And, yet another person may have both.

Changing the Paradigm

Things that we believed to be true, are having to be rewritten and relearned. Textbooks have not caught up and neither have physicians and psychotherapists. This is a really new discovery and, unfortunately for many people suffering, research discoveries, especially those that really shift a paradigm, historically have taken decades for doctors to adopt. The ACEs findings are a perfect example of that. But, perhaps by virtue of podcasts, articles, and social media, together we can get the word out much faster. Tell your doctors. Tell each other–especially anyone who is struggling to understand why they feel so lousy.

I’m so pleased to be able to share this information with you and to bring awareness to the reality that our brain has an immune system which communicates with our body’s immune system. It completely changes the model of psychological and auto-immune disorders, their causes and their interrelatedness, and the profound effects of toxic stress. Our brain and body are so interconnected that an immune response caused by a stressor can get stuck “on” and kill neurons.

Reduce Toxic Stress Using Neuroplasticity

Now for the good news!

Using trauma-informed body/mind techniques can reverse the damage and turn this assassin back into an angel. Using the process of neuroplasticity, we can change our brain. From the Oxford dictionary definition, “Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury.” Ease in the body and mind sends an “all is well” signal, which our nervous system and immune system respond to by repeating the message to each cell in our body and brain. When these pathways are used again and again, we can reduce toxic stress and increase our health and vitality.

I was able to cure my own fibromyalgia using the trauma-informed therapeutic movement and brain training techniques of Somatic Release, a modality I synthesized several years ago. I designed Mindful Motion, a mindfulness-through-movement program, to help others reduce stress and develop embodiment in preparation for Somatic Release sessions.

Learning ways to reduce toxic stress can, and will, turn our microglia from assassins to angels. Here’s to your wellness. And to your healthy brain.

Pamela Stokes, Creator and Founder of Move Into Resilience, provides therapeutic movement and brain training through her podcast and YouTube series, Move Into Resilience, 1-1 Somatic Release sessions, and Mindful Motion practitioner trainings, online courses, and experiential group presentations.