Stress is a common experience that affects our entire well-being. While stress is a normal part of life, chronic stress can have adverse effects on our brain health. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), up to 76% of adults who experience frequent stress also reported impacts on their physical and emotional wellness¹.
In this blog post, we’ll explore the relationship between stress and the brain and discuss ways to manage your stress for better brain health.
Stress is a natural response to a perceived or real threat. It triggers a cascade of physiological and psychological changes that prepare your body's fight or flight response.
Some common signs of stress include:
Physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension or pain, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and stomach aches.
Feelings of anxiety, depression, irritability, sadness, or hopelessness.
Sudden changes in mood, appetite, or behavior.
Brain fog, difficulty concentrating, or forgetfulness.
Stress can be caused by various factors, such as work pressure, financial troubles, relationship problems, or illness. Many people might also find themselves worrying about issues outside of their direct control, like growing older, climate change, or political shifts.
A moderate level of stress may be helpful at times, especially in motivating you to take action or perform better. However, excessive or prolonged stress can be harmful to your health, so you should always keep a diligent eye on your stress levels to stop them from getting out of control.
The type of stress you experience may depend on the nature of the situation as well as your brain's response to it.
There are three main types of stress:
Acute stress is a short-term response to a specific event, such as giving a speech or taking a test. It's usually mild to moderate in intensity and goes away once the stressor is removed.
Episodic acute stress occurs when an individual experiences frequent episodes involving an acute stressor, sometimes due to unrealistic expectations of the self.
Chronic stress is a long-term response to ongoing stressors, such as a demanding job or a troubled relationship. It can have damaging effects on your health, as it may lead to a wide range of physical, emotional, and cognitive problems.
It's important to recognize the type of stress you are experiencing to manage it effectively and minimize its negative effects on your brain and body.
The stress response, also known as the "fight or flight" response, is a physiological and psychological reaction to a perceived threat or danger. When the body perceives a threat, it releases stress hormones that prepare the body to take action. This response is a survival mechanism that evolved to help us respond quickly in dangerous situations.
Physiological responses to stress may include increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate, as well as the release of glucose from the liver to provide energy to the muscles. At the same time, digestive activity and blood flow to non-essential organs may decrease.
Psychologically, the stress response often leads to feelings of anxiety, fear, or anger, along with a heightened sense of alertness and focus. If the stressor persists or if there are repeated stressors, the body may remain in a state of chronic stress, causing prolonged negative effects on physical and mental health.
A stress response can be triggered by traumatic events, but not all stress is linked to danger. We often experience minor stress responses in daily occurrences like giving a presentation at work. Over time, these responses may build up into a pattern of chronic stress.
Stress can have both short-term and long-term effects on brain health. In the short term, stress can sometimes improve cognitive function and memory by increasing our alertness and focus. However, the effects of stress on your brain quickly become negative when they persist over a longer period.
Here are some examples of the negative impacts of chronic stress on brain health.
Stressful events can throw off the balance of neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay messages between brain cells and throughout your body, helping to regulate mood, motivation, and pleasure. Lowered or elevated levels of neurotransmitters may result in feelings of anxiety, depression, and apathy.
Even everyday stress can lead to the release of stress hormones. These hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline, affect the brain’s neurotransmitters, which may then cause changes in mood, cognition, and behavior.
Hormone levels will not return to normal until after a stressful event has passed. An excess of the stress hormone cortisol over a long period could eventually cause health problems like inflammation and inflict damage to cells in the body².
When you experience chronic stress, it could affect the structure of your brain and the performance of its various parts. For instance, it may reduce the size of the brain's hippocampus, the area responsible for memory and learning, and increase activity in the amygdala, involved in fear and anxiety.
Chronic stress affects your memory and brain functions, making it harder to concentrate, learn new things, and recall information. You may feel the effects on your academic or professional performance and your daily life.
So, what do you do if your stress levels get out of control? Here are some techniques you can use to manage stress and protect your brain.
Not only does regular exercise enhance your physical health, but it can also help reduce stress, improve overall mood, and boost cognitive function. The average adult should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise on most days of the week. Examples of moderate physical activity include brisk walking, cycling, and water aerobics.
It's worth noting that heading outside for your exercise could reduce your stress even more. Studies have found that taking a 90-minute walk in nature may decrease the amount of activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain often linked with negative thoughts³.
Practicing meditation and mindfulness is a great way to cope with immediate stress while increasing your resilience in the face of future stress. Mindfulness can be particularly useful in the midst of stressful situations, as it allows you to focus on yourself in the present moment instead of any current, past, or impending environmental stressors.
To relieve chronic stress, it may be useful to find a quiet place to sit and focus on your breath or repeat a mantra for a few minutes each day. Meditating right before bed could also help those who have trouble calming their thoughts fall asleep faster and sleep better.
Another essential coping mechanism for stress is building and maintaining strong social connections. Research indicates that having a social support system in place reduces the amount of cortisol released in stressful situations⁴.
Stay in touch with friends, family, a physician, or a support group for help and companionship. Even if you're not currently in a tough situation, it's important to set up those relationships so you can rely on them when needed.
There are lots of different habits that make up an overall healthy lifestyle. For example, you should try to eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep regularly to manage your stress levels properly and protect your brain health.
A balanced diet provides the extra energy you need to be able to cope with stressful events. Some foods like omega-3 fatty acids and vegetables may even help regulate cortisol levels⁵. Bulking up on vitamin C-rich foods can increase your immune function too, potentially assisting in the repair of any cells that may have been damaged by the effects of chronic stress.
Sleep plays a crucial role in managing stress by allowing your brain to rest and recover from the effects of stress. During sleep, your body produces lower levels of stress hormones. This allows both physical and emotional repairs to occur.
For the most part, stress is an unavoidable part of life. At times, it might help us perform better, but uncontrolled, chronic stress takes a heavy toll on your brain health. By understanding how stress affects your brain and practicing the stress management techniques we discussed, you can take steps to protect and improve your overall wellness.
Remember to prioritize self-care and don't be afraid to proactively seek help from your friends, family, and physicians when you need it.
(1) APA (October 2022) Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the future, beset by inflation
(2) Harvard School of Public Health (October 2020) Stress and Health
(3) Bratman, Gregory N; Hamilton, J Paul; Hahn, Kevin S; Daily, Gretchen C; Gross, James J (July 2015) Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation
(4) Ozbay, Fatih; Johnson, Douglas C; Dimoulas, Eleni; Morgan, C.A. III; Charney, Dennis; Southwick, Steven (May 2007) Social Support and Resilience to Stress
(5) Soltani, Hoda; Keim, Nancy L; Laugero, Kevin D (November 2018) Diet Quality for Sodium and Vegetables Mediate Effects of Whole Food Diets on 8-Week Changes in Stress Load