This is Your Brain on Stress

Chances are you’ve felt the temporary effects of stress: sweaty palms, a nervous feeling in your stomach, a racing mind. These symptoms typically subside once the stress trigger does. But what about chronic stress? Does stress keep our brains and body sharp, or is it slowly wearing them down?

“The difficult thing about stress is it’s hard to quantify,” said WellcomeMD physician Dr. Neal Carl. “We do have certain labs like cortisol levels, which is considered the stress hormone, we can measure, but that’s just part of the story. The real story is when people come in and say, ‘Doc, my exam’s normal and my lab’s normal but something is affecting me, and I suspect that its stress.’”

In small doses, stress is not always a bad thing: it can be helpful for a burst of extra energy and focus like public speaking or playing a competitive sport. But when it’s continuous, stress begins to change your brain. Let’s examine ways stress affects your mind. 

Chronic Stress May Increase the Risk of Mental Illness

When it comes to the development of mental disorders, like depression and anxiety, stress may play a pivotal role. A study published by Molecular Psychiatry found that chronic stress can result in long-term changes in the brain. Researchers suggest that these changes might help explain why chronic stress sufferers are more prone to anxiety and mood disorders later on in life.

The release of stress hormones affect areas of the brain that are key for memory and regulating emotions. Repeated or chronic stress impacts how well the mind can control the stress response. Prolonged stress can change the structure of the brain affecting both grey and white matter. These changes, along with other factors, can increase the likelihood of developing mental illness.

Stress Hurts Your Memory

Stress can make us forgetful. If you’ve ever tried to recall the details of a stressful event, you are probably well aware of this fact. Even minor stress can have an immediate impact on your memory. Ever tried to find where you left your car keys when you’re running late for work?

During times of stress, the amygdala sets off an alarm that puts the body and nervous system in fight or flight mode which exposes the brain and body to high levels of stress hormones. Prolonged exposure to high levels of stress hormones over time can damage the hippocampus which, in turn, reduces its ability to encode and form memories.  

Studies show that chronic stress hurts spatial memory -- things like the location of objects or how to navigate your way through your environment. Hence your missing car keys.

Stress Kills Brain Cells

Stress can be a killer -- for your brain cells. In a study conducted by the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, researchers discovered that new neurons in the brain’s hippocampus could be killed from a single socially-stressful event.

The hippocampus is one of two areas of the brain where new brain cells are formed throughout a person’s life. It is also one of the regions of the brain that’s heavily associated with emotion, learning, and memory. And while stress does not impact the formation of new neurons, it does affect whether or not those cells survive.

So chronic stress can be harmful to your brain, but is there anything that can be done to minimize the damaging impact? Check back later this week when we share five tips to protect your mind and decrease your mental stress load.