What Stress Does to Your Brain

Stress brain cover

In the modern world, even the poor people have access to technology and comforts that even the wealthiest kings could not have imagined possessing a hundred years ago. Additionally, we exist in a world with amenities like comfortable and cozy houses, healthy food, and relaxed transportation yet our mental state continues to decline with each passing day. The urban environment is constantly causing a tug of war between our reality and our peace of mind and it is surfacing as immense stress in people, so much so that they have to rely on medication to relive it. We know that it is bad for our health, but what about the brain? How does it affect the processing unit of our body?

What is Stress?

As of today, there would be barely any adult who has not encountered a stressful situation or have undergone this emotional frustration, reports even suggest that the ratio of teenagers with stress is also increasing. It is this overwhelming feeling that makes one think that they are unable to deal with the emotional or mental pressure. Though stress in itself is not harmful, as it is our body’s natural response to certain circumstances, we all face it from time to time, whether it be due to a job, family, or the uncertainty of the future. However, it becomes damaging to someone when they are stressed on a daily basis.

Causes of Stress

  • Encountering a chronic illness or disease.
  • Ongoing arguments with a partner.
  • Job insecurity or uncooperative coworkers/management.
  • Sudden financial burden.
  • Harassment at work/school.

As you can guess there are more reasons as to why one would be stressed, however, these are common ones that lead to regular stressing.

Chronic stress and the Brain

The common effects of stress on the body are headaches, upset stomach, and insomnia. however, it affects the brain in a different manner.

  • Shrinkage: In the past, people believed that immense sudden stress that comes with life situations such as an accident or passing away of a loved one lead to detrimental effects on the brain, however, in a recent study it was found that ongoing stress is way worse for the brain, as those circumstances don’t occur daily or even weekly. The gray matter within the prefrontal cortex of our brains is linked with emotions and self-control. In a study, scientists observed that chronic stress starts to degrade this gray matter which slowly results in shrinkage of the brain and that is a big concern.
Brain shrinkage stress

A healthy brain compared to a shrunken brain.

  • Memory: Ever been in a stressful situation and all of a sudden you realize you don’t remember anything that once was on the back of your head? For example, when your child gets injured, you know where the first aid kit is and who to call if it is severe, however, the seriousness of the moment takes over and you forget everything. According to scientists, regular stress damages the spatial memory or the ability of our brain to recall the location of objects in a setting. Additionally, in a study done with rats, it was observed that cortisol levels not only alter spatial memory but also plummets short-term memory.
  • Neuroplasticity: The word neuroplasticity refers to the ability of the brain to change and adapt to the neural networks depending on the experience and situation. While it is true that our brain and body can recover from high levels of stress, but we require a certain downtime to heal properly. When an individual is exposed to stress on a daily basis, one tends to form neural pathways that negatively alter the brain into remaining stressed. Also, the time it takes to recover from stress-related damage is correlated to age, as youngsters are seen to be recovering quicker.
Stress neuroplasticity

Neural pathways of the brain when controlled and stressed.

  • Brain cells: Brain cells or neurons are the cells that are responsible for sending and receiving electrical signals and they transmit information to other neurons, muscles, and tissues of the body. While we generate new neurons continuously, stress affects the existing neurons. In a study, two new rats were kept in the same cage where two mature rats were kept, later the younger rats encountered aggression from older rats and scientists observed their brain cells. Initially, there was no change but a week later, most of the existing neurons were killed due to high cortisol levels.
  • Mental Illness: It is no surprise that once a person is stressed an array of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression develops in that individual. A group of stressed people was studied to see how chronic stress relates to mental illnesses. It was observed that these people had a higher production of myelin, a layer that forms around the nerves, which resulted in delayed communications in certain areas of the brain, and scientists linked it to mood swings and anxiety.

Ways to relieve stress

We know stress is detrimental to our brains and in current times it seems like it is impossible to run away from it. We can at least try to mitigate its severity using these methods.

  • Deep Breathing: This is a phenomenal technique, it is as simple as taking deep and slow breaths and exhaling similarly with each cycle taking anywhere from 10-15 seconds. It is not just a gimmick but it actually works and not only it provides some clarity in stressful situations, but it also helps people with anxiety. A great advantage of deep breathing is that it can be performed by anyone and anywhere.
  • Exercise: Another tried and tested method when it comes to fending off against mental illnesses is simply working out. It doesn’t have to be intense training in the gymnasium, one can simply jog for 15 minutes or perform stretching for an equal amount of time and it is sufficient to make a person feel better. Physical activities release chemicals in our brain that calms us down and enhance our overall mood.
Jogging stress

Two individuals enjoying a jog through the woods.

  • Take a break: Sometimes we just overcomplicate things than they are and this leads to tremendous amounts of stress. Simply take a 10-minute break from your work or study and just go for a walk. It is often seen that if we continue to stay at the same position we are stressed it continues to rise.

The bottom line is that stress in today’s world is very real and damaging. Several scientific evidence is available that show that it is detrimental and workplaces must change their ways of operating to maintain their employees’ mental health and if that is not possible we must do what it takes to take care of ourselves.

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