7 Shocking Ways Stress Can Physically Change Your Brain
In small doses, stress can motivate you to get things done and, under more dire circumstances, can even help keep you safe. But when stress becomes chronic, you may start to experience all sorts of side effects and symptoms as a result. And, rather shockingly, stress can even cause physical changes in your brain.
"When we experience stressful events, the amygdala (area of the brain focusing on emotional processing) sends an emergency signal to the hypothalamus (the brain command center) that says it’s time to pick the 'fight or flight' response,'" Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EDM, NYC-based psychotherapist and author of Forward in Heels, tells Bustle. "This response triggers common stress reactions like increased heart rate, hyper-vigilance, shallow breathing to conserve energy, a rush of adrenaline to prepare for defense, and a release of a hormone called cortisol."
The thing is, a stressful lifestyle can trigger this same response, even when it isn't necessary. And over time, it can start to take a toll on your health — as well as your brain — which is why you'll want to take good care of yourself by finding ways to cope with stress.
You can't avoid stress entirely, but you can do things to keep it from becoming chronic, which in turn can help prevent some long-term physical changes and other unpleasant side effects, such as the ones listed below.
1. It Can Impact Your Memory
Studies have shown that "people with higher levels of cortisol have poorer memory [...] than those in the same age bracket with less cortisol," psychotherapist Ann Russo, LMSW, tells Bustle. So if you have ongoing stress, brain fog and other memory issues may not be far behind.
There is good news, though, in that studies have also shown how you view and handle stress can change the impact it has on your brain, Russo says. "It’s important to try and reassess the situation in a more positive light," she says. "It can be hard, but if you are telling yourself that you are constantly stressed, you are feeding the stress."
Instead, try to redirect those thoughts, be present and mindful, and work on ways to alleviate your stress, Russo says, by exercising, meditating, or even seeing a therapist to learn more positive coping skills.
2. Stress Can Increase The Size Of Your Amygdala
If you're under huge amounts of stress on a regular basis, it can eventually change the size of your amygdala — the part of the brain that plays a key role in processing emotions. And that may impact how you feel.
"Chronic stress can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress, creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of 'fight or flight,'" Maenpaa says. "You’re primed to look for threats, so you see threats wherever you go, which reinforces your brain’s belief that it is constantly under attack."
You can strike a better balance, though, by finding ways to cope with stress in a healthy way, so it doesn't take over.
3. You Can Experience "Allostatic Overload"
"When being upset, stressed out, and worried is chronic and extreme, people often become exhausted and are prone to giving up," Dr. Paul Napper, PsyD, co-author of The Power of Agency, tells Bustle. And this can lead to a feeling of burn out.
"Neurobiologists use the term 'allostatic overload' to describe this condition," Dr. Napper says. "Unremitting exposure to high angst wears down the body's normal ability to make adjustments as it can sever the connection to the mental skills people rely on to regulate their mood and make good decisions."
You may even start to feel more stressed as adaptive challenges go unmet, Dr. Napper says, leading to a downward spiral. Which is, again, why it's so important to take good care of your mental health, as well as your physical health.
4. You May Become Anxious Or Depressed
As Dr. Napper says, "prolonged high concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol in the bloodstream, due to extreme chronic stress, causes long-term damage not just to the brain, but to the entire body, setting the stage for a host of chronic and acute illnesses."
We're still learning about chronic stress and all the ways it can impact health, but we do know that it can increase the risk of things like cardiovascular disease, as well as anxiety and depression.
"The best course of action is to try to address living in these high-stress times proactively through increasing your level of personal agency," Dr. Napper says. "This builds confidence and is a powerful inoculant to unexpected life stressors."
5. The Brain Can Actually Shrink
"High levels of cortisol that can build up with chronic stress can wear down the brain’s ability to function normally," Dr. Diane Amstutz, PhD, psychologist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, tells Bustle. And that can change your brain in a pretty shocking way.
As Dr. Amstutz says, "It can literally kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain [...] and can also shrink the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in self-control and emotional regulation.”
6. You Might Feel Less Social
Stress can even impact your brain in a way that may make you feel less social. And again, it's all due to that excess cortisol. As Dr. Michael Genovese, clinical psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare, tells Bustle, "It can disrupt the function of a synapse (the site where brain cells communicate with each other), [and] this can result in decreased sociability and avoiding interaction with others." So if you're usually more social, and yet haven't felt like reaching out to friends as of late, consider ongoing stress as a possible cause.
7. It Leads To A Reduction In Neurons
"Stress, especially chronic daily stress such as a stressful job or a chronic illness, can lead to structural changes in the brain that allow for its survival and protection," Margherita Mascolo, MD, CEDS, chief medical officer at Alsana, tells Bustle.
Researchers have seen this in animal models, which have shown that stress "causes a reduction in neurons (nerve cells that transmit information) due to shorter survival and an increase in myelin (insulating layer around nerves responsible for communication/delivery of information)," Dr. Mascolo says. "These changes are not usually seen in stress due to an unforeseen major event, such as loss of a job or death of a loved one, but seen in chronic daily stress from the aforementioned conditions and lead to decrease in decision-making ability, emotional dysregulation that can lead to anxiety and depression, and [a] decrease in memory retrieval."
Small daily stressors are nothing to worry about, as they're a normal part of life, and one that can't really be avoided. But do keep an eye out for signs of chronic stress, since it can have a major impact on your brain, as well as your overall well-being.
By making sure to cope with stress in a healthy way — including getting plenty of sleep, exercising, meditating, and/or finding a relaxing hobby — you'll be better able to manage it, and help keep it from taking a toll on your health.