Many people do not consider the serious repercussions of suffering from long-term stress, as the acute stress response is what most people are accustomed to. This acute response could be elicited from something as simple as rushing to catch the train for your morning commute, or completing a work assignment during the last hour of the day.
Chronic stress is an entirely different beast. If you’ve ever seen someone change after being bombarded with a heavy stress burden, then you have observed the negative changes that may have happened to the brain.
Chronic stress affects almost every part of the body, inside and out and the brain is certainly one of the parts that suffers numerous serious consequences.
The following are some of the manifestations of chronic stress inside the brain; these are serious consequences making it more important than ever to get your stress under control today!
Stress Impairs Memory
The brain is an incredibly flexible and versatile organ, able to respond to stimulus and change and grow accordingly. In this case, the action of cortisol shrinks an area of the brain known as the hippocampus, which is very important for memory and retention.
Instead, it causes an increase in the size of the amygdala, another brain region that is deeply entwined with our emotional reactions. Thus, by increasing the size of the area, the brain is primed to respond to the fight of flight stimulus, and make decisions based on emotions as opposed to working memory and logic. Not an ideal scenario.
Stress Increases Oxidative Damage In The Brain
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter in the brain whose production is amplified under the influence of cortisol.
However, as glutamate increases, so does the generation of reactive oxygen species, a dangerous molecule that actively damages cells.
These oxygen species attack and cause brain cells to die, and is implicated as a contributory factor in the development of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Stress Inhibits Growth Of New Brain Cells
Things would not have been so dire if following oxidative damage new cells were formed, but stress has a way of shutting down this mechanism of recovery as well. In particular is a protein named (BDNF) which stimulates the formation of new brain cells, and which is suppressed by cortisol. This speeds up aging and deterioration of the brain and can explain why some people experience significantly more cognitive issues under high stress.
Stress Negatively Affects Levels Of Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters have very important functions in the brain, but their most well established roles include those of regulating mood, motivation and concentration and sleep patterns. Cortisol provokes depletion of two of these, namely serotonin and dopamine, which leaves you lethargic and unable to experience pleasure in everyday life. The result is often depression and suicidal thoughts, along with panic attacks and uncontrolled binge eating.
Stress Affects The Brain’s Defense
The brain possesses a natural “barrier,” aptly called the blood-brain barrier, which under normal circumstances prevents entry to questionable elements. These include toxins and the majority of pathogens that cause disease.
However, under the influence of cortisol, this barrier becomes much more lenient, allowing more and more unfavorable elements entry into the brain. This is an extremely bad development, and is only every beneficial when you actively need medication to cross the barrier that are not able to cross otherwise.
Stress Reduces The Plasticity Of The Brain
As previously mentioned, the brain is able to constantly grown and change, but plasticity also refers to the brain’s ability to rewire itself. For example, someone who learns a new highly technical skill has neurons that are more tightly interconnected for those tasks, and with practice, this network grows even stronger. This explains how practice makes perfect, and why when you are under stress it becomes increasingly difficulty to perform, retain or learn.