7 Shocking Ways Stress Can Physically Change Your Brain

#5: Your brain can actually shrink.

by Carolyn Steber and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A stressed out person rubs the bridge of her nose with her glasses off. Experts reveal ways stress c...

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. 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, L.C.S.W., NYC-based psychotherapist and author of Forward in Heels, tells Bustle. You might experience everything from an increased heart rate and shallow breathing to a burst in adrenaline and the stress hormone 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 find 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. Here are just some of the ways stress can mess with your brain.


Stress Can Affect 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.

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. 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.


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 Might 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 burnout.

"Neurobiologists use the term 'allostatic overload' to describe this condition," Dr. Napper says. When you're under pressure all the time, your body can't make adjustments to help, as it typically would. You may even start to feel more stressed as adaptive challenges go unmet, Dr. Napper says, leading to a downward spiral.


You May Feel Anxious Or Depressed

Dr. Napper tells Bustle that having high concentrations of cortisol in the blood stream for a long time can damage the brain and the rest of the body, making you more vulnerable to other illnesses. Scientists are 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."


Your 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," Diane Amstutz PhD, a psychologist at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, tells Bustle. And that can change your brain in a pretty shocking way.

As 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.”


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 M.D., a 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)." A 2014 study published in Nature Communications found that chronic stress can "tear apart" synapses in the brain, which led to subjects being less social and more isolated. If you're feeling more introverted lately, stress could be a cause.


Stress Can Reduce Your 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," Dr. Margherita Mascolo, M.D., CEDS, chief medical officer at eating disorder clinic 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)," Dr. Mascolo says. These changes, she says, can lead to decreases in your ability to make decisions, retrieve memories, or regulate your emotions.

Small daily stressors are nothing to worry about, as they're a typical part of life that can't really be avoided. But do keep an eye out for signs of chronic stress — like anxiety, forgetfulness, or isolation — since it can have a major impact on your brain, as well as your overall well-being.

Studies cited:

Csabai, D., Wiborg, O., & Czéh, B. (2018). Reduced Synapse and Axon Numbers in the Prefrontal Cortex of Rats Subjected to a Chronic Stress Model for Depression. Frontiers in cellular neuroscience, 12, 24.

McEwen, B. S., Nasca, C., & Gray, J. D. (2016). Stress Effects on Neuronal Structure: Hippocampus, Amygdala, and Prefrontal Cortex. Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, 41(1), 3–23.

Peavy, G. M., Salmon, D. P., Jacobson, M. W., Hervey, A., Gamst, A. C., Wolfson, T., Patterson, T. L., Goldman, S., Mills, P. J., Khandrika, S., & Galasko, D. (2009). Effects of chronic stress on memory decline in cognitively normal and mildly impaired older adults. The American journal of psychiatry, 166(12), 1384–1391.

Ruini, C., Offidani, E., & Vescovelli, F. (2015)Life Stressors, Allostatic Overload, and Their Impact on Posttraumatic Growth. Journal of Loss and Trauma,20:2,109-122,DOI: 10.1080/15325024.2013.830530

Van der Kooij, M., Fantin, M., Rejmak, E. et al. (2014) Role for MMP-9 in stress-induced downregulation of nectin-3 in hippocampal CA1 and associated behavioural alterations. Nat Commun5, 4995.


Diane Amstutz Ph.D.

Dr. Michael Genovese M.D.

Jenny Maenpaa, LCSW, EDM,

Dr. Margherita Mascolo, M.D.,

Dr. Paul Napper, Psy.D

Ann Russo, LMSW

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