Stress affects the brain in a multitude of ways. It reduces memory recall ability and perceptual learning, in addition to damaging the brain structure.
Stress: The Biggest Health Danger of Our Time
With today’s hectic lifestyle, stress can attack us from all sides. Financial worries, pressure at work, health problems, family problems, strained relationships and simply being too busy can all place a heavy burden on our shoulders. Not only does the experience of stress feel unpleasant, but it has many negative effects beyond that. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which helps you perform well in a life-or-death situation, but only causes you more trouble if the situation causing your stress isn’t quite so dire. The high cortisol levels associated with chronic stress, plus its numerous other negative physiological effects, are known to increase your risk for various mental and physical ailments. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Heart disease
Although some of these health concerns are quite outwardly noticeable, stress also affects the brain in more subtle ways than most people realize.
Stress Impairs Your Memory
One positive aspect of the hormone cortisol is that it can boost your brain’s ability to form new memories. Unfortunately, when it comes to recalling those same previously-made memories, cortisol will actually hamper your ability to remember. One study involving more than 1,200 volunteers found that people whose cortisol levels rise more when trying to remember something have a harder time actually remembering than people whose cortisol levels don’t rise as much.
It’s not just the skill of remembering facts that is compromised in the face of stress, but also remembering how to do things, as evidenced by a study that found that undergoing a stressful situation beforehand significantly reduced participants’ ability to find objects in a maze.
The memory-reducing effects of cortisol are believed to be due to the way the hormone binds to receptors in the hippocampus and the amygdala, two of the most important brain regions when it comes to memory. The longer you experience chronic stress, the more your memory will be affected. Stress could potentially increase your risk for age-related memory loss. Keep your mind sharp by reducing and relieving stress in your life.
Stress Reduces Perceptive Abilities
There are various types of memory and memory and learning. One type is perceptual learning, which is essentially the ability to learn to perceive things with greater accuracy. Yes, this is another one of the brain’s skills that are compromised by chronic stress.
In one study, researchers had participants undergo some simple tactile perception training that would give them a better sense of touch. However, the researchers also had some of the participants receive a dose of cortisol, while the rest received a placebo drug. The results of the study determined that cortisol reduced the volunteers’ ability to train their senses.
Training your senses has a number of practical applications. For example, you could not become a master painter or musician without the capacity for perceptual learning. Reducing stress in your life can help make it easier to learn new perceptual skills.
Stress Affects the Brain Structure
Chronic stress will literally re-shape your brain. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that chronic stress affects the way your brain’s stem cells differentiate. When you’re under too much stress, the proportion of new cells born in your brain that mature into neurons is reduced. Additionally, the proportion of myelin-producing cells is increased (myelin is a fatty insulating layer around nerve cells).
When there is too much myelin and not enough neurons, communication within the brain is less streamlined and efficient. Additionally, excessive myelin in the brain strengthens the connection between the amygdala and the hippocampus. This increased connection has the unfortunate effect of putting the brain into perpetual fight-or-flight mode. This helps to explain why chronic stress can increase your risk for anxiety and other conditions.
The physical way stress affects the brain also leads to a reduction in brain plasticity, which is essentially the brain’s resilience and ability to learn.
Keep your body and brain as healthy as possible by dealing with stress in healthy ways. Of course, the first step is to try to eliminate all the sources of stress in your life. However, there are things that we can’t as easily change. There are some sources of stress that we just have to deal with. You can relieve stress and prevent all of these negative ways that stress affects the brain with the following lifestyle measures:
- Stay socially connected. Cultivate close friendships.
- Get at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week.
- Get at least seven hours of sleep every night.
- Take up mindful meditation as a daily stress-relieving routine.
- Avoid consuming caffeine, which increases cortisol levels.
- Take a supplement that contains adaptogen herbs, which improve the body’s resilience from stress. Examples include Panax ginseng, eleuthero, maca root and passion flower.
- Maintain a good sense of humor about life. Laugh often.
We may not be able to eliminate stress completely, but with a few simple lifestyle changes, it’s possible to lessen the load stress places on our brains and bodies, facilitating better health.