The Impact of Stress on Your Brain and What You Can Do About It
by Amy Lawson Moore, PhD
THE RAT RACE
Americans are stressed. We work hard, study hard, parent hard, and marry hard. In a culture where downtime is painfully undervalued, we are expected to produce, perform, and be masters of our crafts and of our families with need of little rest or time for quieting our minds.
What are the most common sources of stress in our lives? It should be no surprise that our finances drive much of our misery. The American Psychological Association has been reporting on stress for more than a decade. The most recent report indicated that 61% of people surveyed said that money was a top source of stress, followed closely by work and health problems.
Feel like a hamster on a wheel? Running and running and running all day every day? Unfortunately, this rat race is wreaking havoc on our brains. While your quadriceps are growing, your brain may actually be shrinking!
STRESS SHRINKS THE BRAIN
Chronic stress not only kills existing brain cells, it stops the production of new ones. Here’s how:
When you are stressed, your body releases cortisol. Cortisol doesn’t dissipate under chronic stress. It hangs out in the body and produces a surplus of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate, in turn, produces unattached oxygen molecules called free radicals that attack and rupture the cell walls of the brain cells and cause them to die. And if that weren’t enough, cortisol also inhibits your hippocampus from generating new neurons! Stressed and struggling with memory? That might be why!
There’s a reason why we “feel” stressed. Chronic stress actually increases the part of your brain responsible for your emotions, the amygdala. It becomes larger and the larger it gets, the more emotional you feel. Over time, the amygdala can become hypervigilant and extra sensitive which leads to making mountains out of molehills. Chronic stress, therefore, is associated with increases in fear, anxiety, depression, and anger.
Not only does chronic stress change the amygdala, it also changes the hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. We know that new neurons continue to be produced by the hippocampus in adulthood. But, they need a special protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) to grow. Unfortunately, excess cortisol produced by chronic stress inhibits the production of BDNF. No protein? No new neurons.
Chronic stress can pack on the extra pounds, too. What? Not only do you feel stressed and think stressed, now you look stressed, too? It’s that pesky cortisol again. Too much cortisol reduces the production of serotonin, another neurotransmitter responsible for appetite control. No control? No bikini this year! Cortisol also tells the skin to make more oil, and oily skin is acne-prone. It can also aggravate eczema, rosacea, psoriasis, fever blisters, and hives.
Remember how stress makes you feel? It’s no wonder it influences your behavior as well. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can contribute to angry outbursts, drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, and social withdrawal. It can also lead to grinding your teeth, biting your nails, sexual problems, difficulty sleeping, missing work, risk-taking behavior, car accidents, and suicidal behavior.
YOUR CHILD’S BRAIN ON STRESS
Your brain isn’t the only one impacted by chronic stress. It’s bad for your child’s brain, too. It can seriously impact his ability to learn and can even lower her IQ. Prolonged exposure to chronic stress can actually change the architecture of a developing brain.
Further, a large study on more than 20,000 people showed that adults who experienced chronic stress in childhood were 40% more likely to suffer from depression in adulthood. So, it’s just as important to manage your child’s stress level as it is your own!
REVERSING THE DAMAGE
The good news is that there are MANY ways to combat the damage chronic stress can do to your brain and to prevent stress from wreaking any more havoc on it. Here are a few:
Self-Talk. Early in my career, I co-taught a stress management program to active duty military members with Air Force clinical psychologist Teg McBride, PsyD. His number one piece of advice was to use self-talk to manage stress, such as the powerful reframing statement, “Few things in life are terrible, horrible, or awful…most are just uncomfortable or mildly inconvenient.” When faced with a stressful situation, put things in perspective by carefully assessing how “awful” it really is. You may find that it’s more annoying than traumatic.
“Few things in life are terrible, horrible, or awful…most are just uncomfortable or mildly inconvenient.”
Exercise. Remember how cortisol suppresses the production of BDNF, that important protein that acts as a fertilizer for your brain? The number one way to increase BDNF production is through aerobic exercise. You don’t have to be a marathon runner to reap the benefits. You can walk, swim, bike, or hike your way to a healthier brain. Just exercise vigorously enough to increase your heartrate at least 4 days per week.
Sleep. When you are under chronic stress, sleep is one of the best ways to restore your brain to health. While you sleep, your brain rids itself of toxins, consolidates memories, repairs itself, and grows new neurons. Aim for 7-8 hours per night.
Pray or meditate. Prayer and meditation are excellent stress-reducers by helping you master your thoughts. A study at University of Wisconsin found that prayer helps manage emotions and helps reinterpret negative thoughts. Praying not only helps with stress, it also makes us nicer and more forgiving. As an alternative, meditation helps keep our brain cells from dying prematurely. So, managing stress can also keep your brain sharp.
Socialize. Spend time with friends! In his groundbreaking book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Dr. Robert Sapolsky explains that the number one predictor of mortality in all infectious diseases is our degree of social isolation. That is, we’re healthier when we’re connected. His secret for dealing with stress? Having a shoulder to cry on.
Manage your time. Learn to say “no”. What happens when you chase two squirrels? They both get away. It’s okay to allow yourself to focus on what’s most important and say no to the rest. When I write down my to-do list, I prioritize them so I can tackle the most urgent items first, then the important ones, and I rethink the unimportant ones altogether. Can someone else do it? Does it even need to be done at all?
So, remember that chronic stress comes from multiple areas of our lives, and can have a serious impact on our brain health, but the damage can be reversed through lifestyle changes and a shift in mindset. Life can be uncomfortable, so let’s work on cushioning the blow. MBJ
American Psychological Association. (2017). Stress in America: Coping with change. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2016/coping-with-change.pdf
Nanni, V., Uher, R., & Danese, A. (2011). Childhood maltreatment predicts unfavorable course of illness and treatment outcome in depression: A meta-analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 169(2), 141-151. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11020335
Popoli, M., Yan, Z., McEwen, B., & Sanacora, G. (2011). The stressed synapse: the impact of stress and glucocorticoids on glutamate transmission. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13(1), 22–37. doi.org/10.1038/nrn3138 http://www.nature.com/articles/nrn3138
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Stress symptoms: Effects on your body and behavior. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987
Sharp, S. (2010). How does prayer manage emotions? Social Psychology Quarterly, 73(4), 417-437. doi: 10.1177/0190272510389129
About the Author
Dr. Moore is an educational and cognitive psychologist and the director of Gibson Institute of Cognitive Research in Colorado Springs, CO. She specializes in assessment and rehabilitation of cognition. [email protected]