How Chronic Stress Can Damage the Brain

July 1, 2021

How Chronic Stress Can Damage the BrainStress is one of the body’s natural responses to threat. When you feel threatened or at risk, your nervous system responds to it by releasing a flood of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. This causes the body to leap into emergency mode: your heart pounds faster, your muscles tighten, your blood pressure rises, and your breath quickens as your senses sharpen to action. 

Unfortunately, stress has become a major health issue among Americans and many others across the globe. More than one-third of adults in the US population report that their stress has increased in the last year, with 24% of adults reporting extreme stress. 

Stress can serve as a detriment to health. How does chronic stress actually change your brain’s physiology and cause damage to its overall structure and wellness? Let’s investigate. 

Stress and Its Physiological Effects on the Brain 

Remember that stress is a chain reaction. When you experience a stressful situation, the amygdala of your brain, the area that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to your hypothalamus. This area, in turn, acts as the command center, communicating the “threat” to the rest of your body so you can gather the energy to fight or flee. 

This is what’s called the fight-or-flight response. 

It’s responsible for physical reactions to stress, including increased heart rate, heightened alert and senses, and adrenaline rush, to name a few. Cortisol release means restoring the energy lost in this response, then the hormone levels fall once the stressful event is over, returning the body to statis. 

5 Ways Your Brain Responds to Chronic Stress

So what happens to your brain in response to repetitive or chronic stress? Here are some to watch out for:

  1. Stress kills brain cells. Did you know that a single stress event could kill new neurons in the hippocampus of your brain? This region of your brain is heavily linked to memory, emotion, as well as learning. The hippocampus is also one of two brain areas where neurogenesis, the formation of new brain cells, takes place throughout life.
  2. Stress changes brain structure. The overproduction of myelin during chronic stress situations results not just in a short-term change in the balance between the white and gray matter in your brain. It can also lead to lasting changes in the structure of the organ. The array of problems you can expect include creating either a resilient brain or one that is more prone to mental illness, based on white matter patterning you obtain early in life, according to researchers. 
  3. It increases the risk of mental illness. In a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, chronic stress has been found to result in long-term brain changes. These changes might be a factor in why those experiencing chronic stress are also more susceptible to mood and anxiety disorders later in life. 
  4. It shrinks your brain. Even if you are an otherwise healthy individual, stress can lead areas of your brain to shrink. This isn’t good news when you consider that these areas are associated with regulating your emotions, memory, and metabolism, to name a few. Everyday stress, as researchers are slowly discovering, can contribute to a wide range of mental conditions, versus just life-altering events such as death of loved ones or natural disasters. 
  5. Stress adversely affects your memory. Stress can definitely make events or their details rather difficult to recall. This happens even with relatively minor stress, which can make you struggle with remembering details, such as where you placed your house or car keys or if you locked the door before leaving the house. 

Learn to Protect Your Brain

While persistent stress can rewire your brain, there are simple steps you can take to prevent long-term damage and take control of your brain health and wellbeing. Start with a few ways to cope with stress and minimize the various factors that might worsen it. 

First, try to establish control over the situation. If the stress isn’t predictable, then focus on controlling the things that you can. These include a good, healthy routine every day. 

It also pays to get a good night’s sleep. It can be a vicious cycle to be in stress, have difficulty sleeping, and making stress worse due to the sleeplessness. Avoid sleep deprivation by implementing healthy sleep habits, such as going to bed at the same time each night, avoiding caffeine, and maintaining a comfortable temperature inside your bedroom. 

Getting organized also helps. Create a daily list of tasks that you seek to accomplish. This way you avoid getting overwhelmed and you are able to identify the clean end goal for yourself for the day or week. 

If you are not getting enough brain-friendly vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and nutrients in your regular diet, then it pays to consider healthy supplementation to invigorate the mind and its functioning. Cognitive enhancement not only helps you tackle the effects of stress but also helps you improve in areas of memory, learning, focus and concentration, and other attributes to win – and be happy – in life. 

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