What Chronic Stress is Doing to Your Brain
Managing stress is no easy feat, especially because stressors are all around us—from the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we turn in for the night. Whether it’s something relatively insignificant like a traffic jam or life-altering due to a lost loved one, stress constantly chips away at physical, mental, and emotional health. At its worst, chronic stress may affect your brain and cognitive function–which is why it’s crucial to understand the mechanisms of stress and manage it.
Short-term stress is still stress
Stress can be manageable in small bites. It’s even a necessary component of life; one that keeps us motivated to grow, adapt, and thrive. There’s also a difference between “bad” stress, or distress, and the healthier version called eustress. The latter occurs when you encounter an exciting challenge, such as starting a new job or competing for your best golf score.
Unfortunately, when distress starts to compound and becomes chronic, it causes significant damage to your brain and cognitive function—even in the short term. You may experience confused thinking, poor judgment, forgetfulness, and difficulty focusing.
Researchers theorize this is a result of redirected energy in the brain. Instead of feeding areas of the brain that control memory or executive function, energy routes to parts of the brain that react to stress. Essentially, the brain puts itself in survival mode.
The effect of long-term stress on the brain
Long-term chronic stress takes even more of a neurological toll, impacting cognitive function, attention, and memory and ultimately raising risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Numerous studies reveal stress-induced effects on the brain, including:
1) Brain cell death. A well-respected study in rats showed that while stress did not delay the initial production of neurons, those cells suffered a marked reduction within a week of a stressful event.
2) Brain shrinkage. Research links higher levels of cortisol, the “stress hormone,” with lower brain volume—particularly in the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain influences attention, impulse inhibition, memory, and cognitive flexibility.
3) Imbalance between gray and white matter, which leads to lasting changes in the brain’s structure. For example, individuals living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) routinely have indications of this imbalance.
4) Memory loss. Stress interferes with attention, concentration, and focus, which makes it more difficult for the brain to “lock in” information. As a result, the brain has a harder time forming new memories and retrieving old ones.
Strategies to control your stress levels
Some stress is outside of our control. What matters is how we respond to the stress entering our life. Try incorporating these strategies into your daily routine:
- Eat a healthy diet. Stress-reducing foods include fish, poultry, fruits, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats. Gut-healthy foods like kefir, greek yogurt, and kimchi are also beneficial because of the close connection between the gut and the brain.
- Exercise regularly. Physical activity combats stress by producing endorphins, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Exercise also improves your mood, helps you relax, and eases symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. Even a brisk walk for 30-minutes can be enough.
- Get proper sleep. Fatigue contributes to stress and heightens its effects. Adequate rest repairs the brain by removing all the toxic waste that accumulates during the day.
- Practice mindfulness. Meditation, yoga, or even taking a few minutes to focus on your breathing interrupts stress’s impact and helps return your mind to baseline.
- Establish healthy routines. Stress feeds on chaos. Structuring your day, as best you can, provides much-needed organization.
- Seek counseling. If stress begins to feel too overwhelming, reach out to a mental health professional who can equip you with various coping tools. Online therapy options also offer a convenient way for connecting with a licensed therapist and engaging in counseling from the comfort of your own home.
Finally, an important coping mechanism is to accept that stress is inevitable. Falsely maintaining the attitude of “I’m fine” will not make the stress disappear.
The Aviv Medical Program addresses brain and physical performance using a holistic approach, which includes neuropsychological assessments and support. Our unique protocol helps areas of the brain experiencing deficits, including those caused by chronic stress.
Contact us to learn more about the Aviv Clinics approach to improving cognitive function and physical performance.