9 ways chronic stress affects the brain – and how to overcome it

Stress affects your ability to concentrate and complete certain tasks. But did you know that chronic stress can also affect your mental and physical health?

The two types of stress

There are two main kinds of stress, one of which is not bad for you. The other one, however, causes health problems and negatively impacts the brain.

Acute stress (the “fight or flight” response) is your reaction to an immediate threat. Once the threat has passed, your stress hormone levels return to normal. Some degree of acute stress may even have positive effects since it prepares your brain for peak performance.

Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones that you produce during times of extreme arousal. These hormones help you think and move fast in an emergency. In certain situations, they could even save your life. These two stress hormones don’t linger in the body.

Chronic stress, the bad kind of stress, increases the production of a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol affects brain function and increases your risk for certain mood disorders and other mental conditions.

Cortisol also streams through your system all day, which can have a negative effect on you.

Chronic stress and its harmful effects

Listed below are the different ways that stress – in particular, chronic stress – affects your physical and mental health.

It shrinks your brain.

Cortisol can stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus. This part of the brain stores memories, and it is crucial for learning and emotional regulation. It also shuts off the stress response when it is no longer needed.

It lets toxins enter your brain.

The blood-brain barrier is made up of highly specialized cells that act as the brain’s gatekeeper. This semi-permeable filter protects the brain from harmful substances. At the same time, it allows essential nutrients into the brain.

Stress makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable or “leaky.” This allows chemicals, heavy metals, neurotoxins, and pathogens to harm your brain.

It stops the production of new brain cells.

You lose brain cells every day. At the same time, you can create new ones. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a crucial protein that helps keep existing brain cells healthy and stimulates new brain cell formation.

BDNF can cancel out the negative effects of stress on the brain, but cortisol stops the production of BDNF. This means fewer new brain cells are formed.

It reduces crucial neurotransmitters.

Brain cells communicate using neurotransmitters. Constant stress reduces the levels of these important chemicals, especially the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

Serotonin, called the “happy molecule,” is important for controlling appetite, learning, mood, and sleep. Dopamine or the “motivation molecule,” is in charge of the pleasure-reward system.

Serotonin-based depression is characterized by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression manifests via lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life.

It makes you emotional and forgetful.

Memory problems are usually one of the first noticeable signs of stress. Forgetting important appointments aggravates stress, and it can make you more emotional.

It can trigger a harmful cycle of fear and anxiety.

Stress boosts your brain’s amygdala or its fear center. When you’re stressed, the size, activity level, and a number of neural connections in the amygdala are increased.

This makes you more fearful, which triggers a vicious cycle of more fear and stress.

It increases your risk for different mental illnesses.

Studies suggest that there are physical differences in the brains of people with stress disorders.

Chronic stress increases your risk for different mental illnesses, such as:

It increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., and one in three seniors in the country will die with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Having good lifestyle habits like following a nutritious diet, avoiding sugary beverages and foods, exercising regularly, staying mentally active, and managing stress levels will help lower your risk for these conditions.

It can affect your thinking skills. 

When you’re stressed, your brain can seize up during the worst possible times like exams or job interviews. (Related: Scientists study the effects of stress on social competence, finding that those with less stress are better able to handle social situations.)

6 Steps that will help protect your brain from stress

Stress is a normal part of life, but you can manage stress and protect your brain by following the tips below.

  1. Eat antioxidant-rich foods. You can stop free radical damage by following a diet that includes antioxidant-rich foods, such as dark chocolate, fruits, green tea, milk, oatmeal, salmon, and vegetables.
  2. Exercise daily. Regular physical activity will boost your BDNF levels. Even jogging or walking is also beneficial for your brain health.
  3. Take an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens boost your resilience to stress and support your overall well-being.
  4. Try a relaxation technique. Your options include mind-body relaxation techniques like autogenic training, biofeedback, or self-hypnosis.
  5. Meditate. Daily meditation will help reduce stress and keep your brain young.
  6. Get enough sleep. When you get at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night, your brain consolidates memories, repairs itself, and grows new brain cells.

It is impossible to live a stress-free life, but having a healthy lifestyle can boost your mental and physical well-being so you can manage your stress levels.

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