6 Effects of Chronic Stress on Your Brain And How To Manage Them


So many of us have dynamic lives with a huge range of stressors impacting us daily. We all know that stress impacts us negatively, some experiencing more negative impacts than others. I was reading this article by Deane Alban which explores the impacts chronic stress can have on our brains, and it is quite startling.

Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol and affects many brain functions, putting you at risk for many mood disorders and other mental issues.

Chronic stress, the kind most of us face every day, can in fact be very harmful.

90% of doctor visits are for stress-related health complaints.

Chronic stress can make you more vulnerable to everything from diseases to the common cold.

The non-stop elevation of stress hormones not only makes your body sick, it negatively impacts your brain as well.

The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Cortisol

There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress — and, despite what you might think, not all stress is bad for you.

Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.

Once the threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.

Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes your brain for peak performance.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced on an as-needed basis in moments of extreme excitement.

They help you think and move fast in an emergency.

In the right situation, they can save your life.

They don’t linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and this is what can make it so dangerous.

Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, heart disease, and diabetes. 

Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands, leaving you feeling “wired but tired”.

Cortisol also takes an equally high toll on your brain.

The Effects Of Chronic Stress On Your Brain

Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory loss, brain fog, anxiety and worry.

But most of these effects of stress on your brain are behind the scenes.

When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brains function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.

You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects…. Eventually.

So here are 12 ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being along with some simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.

1)   Chronic stress makes you forgetful and emotional

Memory problems may be one of the first signs of stress that you will notice.

Misplaced keys and forgotten appointments have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.

If you find all the stress is making you more emotional too, there is a physiological reason for this. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.

2)   Stress creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety

Stress builds up an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s fear centre.

Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain. This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.

3)   Stress halts the production of new brain cells.

Every day you lose brain cells, but every day you have the opportunity to create new ones. Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation . It can be thought of as fertiliser for the brain. BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. But cortisol halts the production of BDFN resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed.

4)   Stress can deplete critical brain chemicals causing depression

Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.

Serotonin it is called the happy molecule. It plays a large role in mood, learning and appetite. Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety and binge eating. Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders.

Dopamine is the motivation molecule. It is in charge of your pleasure-reward system. Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic and depressed. People low in this brain chemical can often use caffeine, sugar, alcohol and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels.

Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment in life.

5)   Stress can make you feel stupid.

Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times - exams, job interviews and public speaking come to mind.

This is actually a survival mechanism.

If you’re faced with a life-and-death situation, instinct and training overwhelm rational thought and reasoning. This might keep you from being eaten by a tiger, but in modern life this is rarely helpful.

Stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions.

It negatively impacts every cognitive function.

6)   Chronic stress shrinks your brain.

Stress can measurably shrink your brain. Cortisol can kill, shrink and stop the generation of new neurones in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.

The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over.

Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory and control of impulsive behaviours.

On top of all that, chronic stress destroys your happiness and your peace of mind. It wears you down mentally and emotionally.

Some side effects of stress that impact your mental well-being include:

·        excessive worry and fear

·        anger and frustration

·        impatience with self and others

·        mood swings

·        suicidal thoughts

·        insomnia, nightmares and disturbing dreams

·        trouble concentrating or learning new information

·        racing thoughts

·        nervousness

·        forgetfulness and mental confusion

·        difficulty in making decisions

·        feeling overwhelmed

·        irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances

·        excessive defensiveness or suspicion

·        increased smoking, alcohol, drug use, gambling or impulse buying.

It’s no fun experiencing the stress related symptoms. And it’s no picnic for those around us either.

So here are 6 Simple Steps To Help A Chronically Stressed Brain

Minimising stress and protecting your brain against its effects is easier than you might think.

Here are 6 simple steps to stop stress in its tracks and overcome its harmful effects on your brain.

1)   Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate and green tea.

2)   Increase levels of brain boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong-mind body orientations like yoga, tai chi and qi gong.

3)   Start a daily meditation or mindfulness practice. Meditation not only reduces stress, it is a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long. Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to master your thoughts. Chronic stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts – your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions – about these events.

4)   Try one of the many mind–body relaxation techniques such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback or autogenic training.

5)   Look into taking an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens increase your resilience to stress while supporting overall health. They promote balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm. Examples of adaptogens include ginseng, holy basil, artic root and bacoba.

6)   Get plenty of sleep. It is during sleep that the brain consolidates memories, repairs itself and grows new brain cells.

Chronic stress may seem to be an unavoidable part of life, but these proactive steps will definitely reduce its wear and tear on your brain.

Chronic stress takes a high toll on our mental health. It affects your brain structure and function in very real ways. It hastens brain ageing, depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges your brain sphere centre and holds the production of new brain cells. It increases your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases. And frustratingly it causes mental functioning to jam at the worst possible time, leaving you less able to cope with the stress of daily life. Fortunately some lifestyle changes, managing your responses and increasing your resilience and mental toughness can help you stop the damaging effects of stress.

Want to know more techniques to manage your stress levels, and build your resilience and mental toughness, contact Michelle on 0412047590 or via email michelle@bakjacconsulting.com

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.