How Stress Affects the Brain

About eight in 10 Americans say they frequently (44%) or sometimes (35%) feel stressed out daily. And all this stress is taking a toll on our collective health. Aside from an increased risk of heart attack, heartburn, a weakened immune system and fertility problems, chronic stress can also wreak havoc on the brain. From physiological effects like a release of cortisol to health consequences like depression, here is what you should know about how stress affects the brain and what you can do to fight back.  


Physiological Effects of Stress

When someone experiences a stressful situation, the body’s “fight or flight” response kicks in, which is a sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses that help a person to fight off a threat or flee to safety. This stress response begins in the brain, when the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which functions as a command center. The hypothalamus then activates the sympathetic nervous system, flooding the bloodstream with the hormones epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and cortisol, which keeps the body on high alert. Meanwhile, a combination of involuntary effects alight throughout the body like rapid heart rate, faster breathing and a release of blood sugar from storage sites in the body.


Negative Effects of Stress on the Brain

The buildup of cortisol in the brain can have negative long-term effects on one’s brain health. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly, resulting in depression and the avoidance of social interactions. Stress can also kill brain cells and shrink the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. In a study by Harvard Medical School, people with higher cortisol levels performed worse on memory tests, and generally had smaller brains.


How to Alleviate Stress

According to Elissa Epel at the University of California San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center, there are many ways to counteract the toxic effects of stress and slow down the aging process, including consciously cultivating gratitude and mindfulness. Some tips she and other researchers at the University of California have proposed include:


  • Social support

  • Meditation

  • Exercise

  • Anti-inflammatory diet

  • Setting limits on obligations

  • Sleep quality

  • Intentional breathing


Being organized and well-prepared can also help to alleviate stress quickly or prevent it from bubbling up altogether. People who described their homes as “cluttered” or full of “unfinished projects” were more depressed, fatigued and stressed than those who felt their homes were “restful” and “restorative,” according to a study in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. When your environment is in disarray, you may also lose track of everyday items like your keys or wallet, which can add to stress. Using Cube Tracker, a small Bluetooth tracker and easy-to-use-app that helps you find everyday items quickly, can to eliminate at least one cause of stress.

Can the Brain Recover?

Thanks to neuroplasticity, or the ways that neural pathways are able to re-form in the brain, you can recover from chronic stress. While young adults can bounce back faster, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), older adults can combat stress’ wear-and-tear on the brain too by becoming more mindful of their stress response as Epel suggested above. Exercising regularly, socializing and finding purpose in life can all enable plasticity. Though stress may be a common occurrence in modern life, learning what to do about it can be just as common, if not more.


Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.