Ways Chronic Stress Negatively Affects Your Brain
Some brain-related stress symptoms, like memory loss, brain fog, anxiety, and worry, will be obvious to you.
But most of the effects of stress discussed below are behind the scenes.
When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brain function and structure, even down to the level of your DNA.
You wont notice these changes while theyre happening, but you will notice the resulting effects eventually.
How Does Stress Affect The Brain
Regular exposure to stress can impact our physical and mental health, but how does it actually affect our brains? One new Harvard Medical School study answers that question.
Stress especially when we experience it on a regular basis takes a significant toll on our minds and bodies.
It can make us feel more irritable and constantly tired, and it impacts our ability to focus.
Chronic stress can also interfere with our sleep patterns, appetite, and libido, and it can also exacerbate a range of health conditions.
One study that Medical News Today covered earlier this year, in fact, saw that even minor levels of distress can increase a persons risk of chronic disease.
What impact does stress have on the brain in physiological and cognitive terms? Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, have explored this question and reported their answer in the journal Neurology.
Ways Stress Impacts The Brain
Oxford Dictionaries defines stress as a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances. Everyone is very familiar with experiencing stressful events in their life. Stress occurs every day and comes in various forms. Stress from trying to juggle family, work, friends, and school commitments can be overwhelming. Stress can also develop from issues like health, money, and relationships.
Do you know how stress impacts the mind and body? Stress can lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches or chest pain. It can also influence mood swings and mental health problems like anxiety or sadness. It can even lead to behavioral changes, such as outbursts of anger or overeating. What you may not know is that stress can also have an impact on your brain. When faced with stress, your brain goes through a series of reactions, some good and some bad, designed to protect itself from potential threats.
Here are a few ways that stress can impact the brain:
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What Influences Our Capacity For Coping With Stress
Several factors influence our capacity for coping with stress:
- The presence of a social network
- Our skill and confidence in assessing a complex situation and then developing and evaluating solutions
- Personal variables such as physical health, experience, confidence, anxiety threshold and problem-solving abilities .
Stressful events are a universal part of the human experience. You may or may not be able to change your current situation, but you can take steps to manage the impact these events have on you.
Nih Grant Will Be Used To Investigate Molecular Mechanisms Underlying The Physiology Of Stress As Well As Therapeutic Strategies
The research builds on Yan’s previous work on the effects of stress on neuronal communication and function.
BUFFALO, N.Y. A University at Buffalo neuroscientist has received $2 million to find out how stress affects cognition and mental function.
Zhen Yan, PhD, professor of physiology and neuroscience in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, was awarded a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health.
The goal of the grant is to explore the molecular basis of the complex effects of stress. In particular, Yan will investigate factors that determine the switch from the positive effects of acute stress to the negative effects of prolonged stress, and how they might be mitigated. The work builds on Yans previous work on the effects of stress on neuronal communication and function.
If you are exposed to short-term stress, you are more alert, more focused and you will perform tasks better, Yan explained. But with repeated stress exposure, you start to have diminished performance from wear and tear on the body and brain. We want to try to understand how these positive effects of stress get switched to negative effects.
We will examine whether inhibiting that enzyme may be a potential therapeutic strategy for rescuing the deleterious effects of chronic stress on cognitive and mental function, says Yan.
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Stress Can Lead To Longer Term Mental Health Issues
In the longer term, chronic stress sets the scene for more severe mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and potentially even Alzheimers disease. Due to continuous disruptions to the brains structure and function, both nerve cells and the connections between them are affected permanently. Recent studies have concluded that these changes, along with other factors, can increase the likelihood of developing mental illness.
Respiratory And Cardiovascular Systems
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood to your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make it even harder to breathe.
Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones cause your blood vessels to constrict and divert more oxygen to your muscles so youll have more strength to take action. But this also raises your blood pressure.
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Protective Effects Of Parental Care
Animal models reinforce the notion that strong maternal care is key to good emotional, social, and cognitive development. Indeed, good maternal care can overcome some of the adverse effects of prenatal stress. Maternal care has long-lasting and even transgenerational effects that are epigenetic, that is, the product of experiential regulation of genetic expression. These animal-model studies have now offered some evidence that epigenetic changes seen in relation to poor maternal care in animal models can be seen in abused human subjects in their white blood cells. Such lasting, epigenetic effects of early-life adversity are evident in the increased incidence of obesity, chronic inflammation, poor dental health as a manifestation of that inflammation, and increased blood pressure.
Genetic differences also make a contribution, since certain variants of common genes increase vulnerability to effects of adverse early-life experiences. However, these reactive alleles may also give rise to better outcomes in a nurturing environment. Individuals with these alleles have been termed orchid children, whereas those with less-reactive alleles are dandelion children, who can do reasonably well in any environment.,
Finally, consistency as well as quality of parental care is important for successful cognitive and social development. Exposure to novelty against a backdrop of stable maternal care is key.
How To Feed A Hungry Brain
Our biology is smart we naturally feel hungrier when we have been doing a lot of mental work, so eating to your appetite should give you the fuel you need to get through the extra load. We also get a greater dopamine hit when we eat when were stressed, which means the vast majority of stressed people already consume more energy, particularly when its chronic, says Medlin.
What would be much more helpful than responding to those happy hormone hits is if we fed our brains with all the right things every day so we can manage stress better without our brain becoming exhausted.
As the brain, like all organs in the body, relies on glucose, carbohydrates are crucial to power it. But Medlin also recommends brain-friendly foods such as oily fish, berries, green leafy vegetables, eggs and nuts.
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Understanding How Stress Affects The Brain
Professionals working in health and human services or psychology have the opportunity to help others manage their stress effectively and understand how stress affects the brain. Touro University Worldwide offers a variety of fully online degree programs at the bachelors, masters and doctoral level that prepare students for careers in these fields.
Opportunity: Intervening Early To Change Developmental Trajectories Of Stress
What can be done to remediate the effects of chronic stress, as well as the biological embedding associated with ELA? Interventions will not reverse developmental events but rather produce compensatory mechanisms . Indeed, development never ends and adolescents, young adults, and aging individuals continue to show the results of experiences, including opportunities for redirection of unhealthy tendencies through a variety of interventions (Halfon et al.,
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Stress Management May Reduce Health Problems Linked To Stress Which Include Cognitive Problems And A Higher Risk For Alzheimer’s Disease And Dementia
It’s not uncommon to feel disorganized and forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress. But over the long term, stress may actually change your brain in ways that affect your memory.
Studies in both animals and people show pretty clearly that stress can affect how the brain functions, says Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Scientists have seen changes in how the brain processes information when people experience either real-life stress or stress manufactured in a research setting. Either type of stress seems to interfere with cognition, attention, and memory, he says.
Stress affects not only memory and many other brain functions, like mood and anxiety, but also promotes inflammation, which adversely affects heart health, says Jill Goldstein, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Harvard Medical School. Thus, stress has been associated with multiple chronic diseases of the brain and heart. In addition, it can affect men and women differently, she says.
Conflict Of Interest Statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Hostinar, C. E., Sullivan, R. M., and Gunnar, M. R. 2014. Psychobiological mechanisms underlying the social buffering of the hypothalamicpituitaryadrenocortical axis: a review of animal models and human studies across development. Psychol. Bull. 140:25682. doi:10.1037/a0032671
Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L., Telzer, E. H., Humphreys, K. L., Goff, B., Shapiro, M., et al. 2014. Maternal buffering of human amygdala-prefrontal circuitry during childhood but not during adolescence. Psychol. Sci. 25:206778. doi:10.1177/0956797614550878
Gee, D. G., Gabard-Durnam, L. J., Flannery, J., Goff, B., Humphreys, K. L., Telzer, E. H., et al. 2013. Early developmental emergence of human amygdalaprefrontal connectivity after maternal deprivation. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110:1563843. doi:10.1073/pnas.1307893110
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What We Have Learned
These, then, are the vital links in the brain-heart interaction during stress. Our emotional reactivity and psychosocial stress are processed in the brain, activating various regions that evaluate complex situations and integrate our memory and emotional variables to produce an increased response from our nervous system. This increase in discharge from the sympathetic nervous system has certain biological effects that result in an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and constriction of our coronary artery vessels. These biological effects may increase the frequency of fatal heart rhythms and promote further atheromatous plaque, which decreases blood ow to the heart muscle and results in myocardial ischemia or, if progressive, heart attack. Certain personality traits such as hostility, cynicism, and anger, as well as social variables such as social support and mood disorders, may make some people more vulnerable to myocardial ischemia induced by mental stress. Studies at present support the idea that, for these people, cognitive and behavioral therapies can reduce emotional reactivity. In addition, the medical treatment of mood disorders and attention to social support may have a benecial effect on stress-related heart disease.
Biological Embeddingeffects Of Stressful Experiences In Early Life
Early-life events related to maternal care in animals as well as parental care in humans play a powerful role in later mental and physical health, which was shown by the adverse childhood experiences studies and recent work noted below. Animal models have contributed enormously to our understanding of how the brain and body are affected, starting with the neonatal handling studies of Levine et al. and the recent elegant work by Meaney and Szyf . Epigenetic transgenerational effects transmitted by maternal care are central to these findings. Other than the amount of maternal care, the consistency over time of that care and the exposure to novelty are also very important not only in rodents but also, monkey models . Prenatal stress impairs hippocampal development in rats as does stress in adolescence . Abusive maternal care in rodents and the surprising attachment shown by infant rats to their abusive mothers seems to involve an immature amygdala , activation of which by glucocorticoids causes an aversive conditioning response to emerge. Maternal anxiety in the variable foraging demand model in rhesus monkeys leads to chronic anxiety in the offspring as well as signs of metabolic syndrome .
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Central Nervous And Endocrine Systems
Your central nervous system is in charge of your fight or flight response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones rev up your heartbeat and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart, and other important organs.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should tell all systems to go back to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor doesnt go away, the response will continue.
Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
Relevance To The Rdoc Framework
Six of the units of analysis of the RDoc framework are represented in this review, which focuses on how experiences over the life course can alter the circuitry that underlies the RDoc domains and influence their function and the balance among them as they affect physiology and behavior. One deficiency of the RDoc framework, as presently formulated, is that it does not fully recognize the continuous reciprocal interactions between hormonal, metabolic and immune activity and the RDoc domains in the brain at the level of the units of analysis, particularly circuitry via cellular and molecular mechanisms. Systems biology and brainbody interactions should in the future be given a greater emphasis in RDoc, given the concepts of allostasis and allostatic load/overload and their implications for the multimorbidity of mood disorders with systemic disorders. Type 2 diabetes and its now recognized relationship to depression and dementia is an important example.
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The Effects Of Stress On Your Body
Youre sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your bodys fight or flight response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.
Yet if your stress response doesnt stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:
Definition Of Allostasis And Allostatic Load
In a changing social and physical environment, the brain and body respond physiologically and behaviorally in order to adapt. Physiologically, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, hypothalamicpituitaryadrenal axis, immune system and metabolic hormones and molecular processes within all organs, including the brain, operate non-linearly and promote adaptation via allostasis . But the same mediators have biphasic effects and can also promote pathophysiology when overused or when their activity is out of balance with each other . Adaptation and protection via allostasis and wear-and-tear on the body and brain via allostatic load/overload are the two contrasting sides of the physiology involved in responses of the individual during the challenges of daily life.
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Stress Can Affect Memory
High levels of cortisol can lead to the deterioration of the hippocampus the part of the brain associated with learning and memory. As your brains energy is focusing solely on surviving, it leaves the other parts of your brain like the hippocampus deflated and with limited energy.
Additionally, excess cortisol leads to fewer new brain cells being made in the hippocampus. A University of Iowa study proved this by using rats to reveal that high levels of cortisol were connected to short-term memory loss. Consequently, as a result of chronic stress, not only do you forget easily, but you also struggle to remember new information and memories.