Your Brain on Stress

If you’re feeling irritable, fatigued, having problems sleeping, or a difficult time focusing you’re probably stressed out. Stress is incredibly common with around 50% of Americans report some type of stress caused by work, family, finances, or personal health. When any of these factors go awry it’s understandable to feel worn down and anxious.

Stress isn’t meant to be a mental drain. In small doses it promotes focus and supplies you with a burst of energy. Ideally this short term boost will help you get past your problem. Things go wrong when you’re unable to manage the issue and your problem persists over time.

The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis (HPA) responds to signals of stress, releasing a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol works to increase blood sugar and aid in your bodies metabolism. Great in short bursts, like when the clock is ticking on an assignment or you’re preparing for an interview.

If stress from work is constant, problems with your partner go unresolved,  end up exposing your brain and body to chronic stress. Once you’ve reached this level, your brain size, structure, and functions can change.

A persistent release of cortisol ends up rewiring the neural connections in your amygdala, center of your brain’s fight-or-flight response. As the release of cortisol continues the hippocampus, associated with learning and the consolidation of memory begins to atrophy. Worse, the hippocampus acts as a regulator for the HPA. The deterioration inhibits your response to stress, creating a vicious circle.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC), correlated with expression of personality, decision making, and the moderation of social behaviors, shrinks under prolonged exposure to cortisol. But, the damage doesn’t stop with the PFC. Cortisol suspends the growth of new brains cells in the hippocampus and the loss of synaptic connections in the brain. Another hit to memory consolidation.

The combination of effects from chronic stress opens the door to more severe issues like alzheimer’s, depression, and heart disease. Not to mention the loss of income and time associated with poor memory consolidation and a difficult time learning.

Not all is lost for individuals who’ve experienced chronic stress. Several studies have shown that the effects of prolonged cortisol exposure can be reduced or even negated with the proper response.

Some of the best tools for stress management are moderate exercise and meditation. Both promote activity in the hippocampus, as well as a bevy of other benefits.

Exercise has been shown to improve mood, boost energy, facilitate better sleep, release endorphins to help combat stress, as well as a myriad of physical benefits.

Meditation works in a similar fashion, increasing self awareness, reducing stress, improving concentration, and benefits for the cardiovascular system.

Further Reading/Viewing:

APA – Exercise

Harvard Health – Meditation Offers Heart Benefits

TedEd – How Stress Affects Your Brain

APA – Stress Snapshot