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3 Ways Stress Impacts the Brain

Image of Ashley van Biljon
Updated on 15 November, 2020
Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Alina Fong

3 Ways Stress Impacts the Brain

Oxford Dictionaries defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” Everyone is very familiar with experiencing stressful events in their life. Stress occurs every day and comes in various forms. Stress from trying to juggle family, work, friends, and school commitments can be overwhelming. Stress can also develop from issues like health, money, and relationships.

Do you know how stress impacts the mind and body? Stress can lead to physical symptoms, such as headaches or chest pain. It can also influence mood swings and mental health problems like anxiety or sadness. It can even lead to behavioral changes, such as outbursts of anger or overeating. What you may not know is that stress can also have an impact on your brain. When faced with stress, your brain goes through a series of reactions, some good and some bad, designed to protect itself from potential threats.

Here are a few ways that stress can impact the brain:

1 - Stress Changes the Brain Structure

Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley discovered that chronic stress provokes long-term changes in the brain’s structure and function. Their discovery may explain why young people who are exposed to chronic stress early in life are susceptible to mental problems, such as anxiety and mood disorders, later in life.It has been established that stress-related illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generate changes in the brain’s structure, including differences in the volume of gray matter versus white matter, and the size and connectivity of the amygdala.

2 - Stress Makes You Forgetful and Emotional

Scientists have discovered that stress has an impact on memory. It is not just that we have a lot on our plates and aren’t paying attention. Research over the last few decades has shown that stress has a significant impact on how the brain processes information and stores it.

Stress affects two crucial areas of the brain when it comes to memory: the hippocampus and the amygdala. These regions are linked to our ability to learn, to process, and to store short and long-term memories. The hippocampus is responsible for the formation of factual memories while the amygdala is responsible for emotional responses. Under stress, the balance between these two regions is upset as stress weakens the hippocampus and strengthens the amygdala. This means that increasing stress in our brains will cause the factual information to be overlooked by the emotions we experience.

3 - Stress Increases the Risk of Mental Illness

Stress predisposes you to develop a variety of mental illnesses, like anxiety and panic disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD.  

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “When experiencing long-term stress, your brain is exposed to increased levels of a hormone called cortisol. This exposure weakens your immune system, making it easier for you to get sick.”

Long periods of stress can also worsen mental illness. Clearly, managing stress levels is vital for your wellbeing, your brain, and for your mental health.

Don’t Stress About Stress - Ways To Manage Stress

It is important to recognize that you have control over your stress levels. You can make choices that help you manage your stress and reduce the risk of mental illness and other stress side-effects. Reducing stress is important for overall health and well-being for anyone, but particularly for someone with a brain injury.

Listed below are a few ways you can reduce stress in your life.

Recognize What Triggers Your Stress — Stress can come from a variety of sources: being overworked, being in an unhealthy relationship, overthinking, or having a lot to do and not enough time to do it. Look at what things you can adjust and say no to in order to help your stress levels reduce.

Eat a Healthy Diet & Drink Enough Water — A balanced diet can assist in combating the stresses in your life by fueling your brain and body with the nutrients it needs. Stress adds additional challenges to the natural processes of supporting your brain function. Any actions you can take to support these processes, like drinking enough water, will be very helpful. Drinking enough water can also help to flush out toxins in your body, and keep you hydrated.

Get a Massage — Massages like Swedish, deep tissue, and reflexology are designed to help your body release tension and promote relaxation. Massage will help increase blood flow throughout the body, helping many of your systems get a reboot.

Get Moving!Exercise has been linked to increasing your endorphins (happy hormones). You don’t need to do a strenuous activity to get the benefits. Daily walks or yoga for at least 30 minutes a day can help you process what’s happening and develop a game plan to overcome the stressful event.

Mindful Meditation & Deep Breathing — Meditation can help you wash away the stresses of everyday life when you’re feeling anxious, tense, or worried. Meditation can be practiced by anyone anywhere, and it doesn’t require any equipment. You can even attend classes at a gym or studio near you. The practice of mindfulness can leave you feeling calm and relaxed to continue with the day. Deep breathing exercises also provide a variety of benefits for the brain, as the amount of oxygen it receives is increased.

Relaxation Activities — These activities are things that YOU like to do to de-stress. There are no correct activities to de-stress, but here are some of our favorite ideas:

  • Listening to music
  • Drawing
  • Aromatherapy & Essential Oils 
  • Gardening
  • Cooking
  • Unplugging from Electronics 
  • Take a nap
  • Go for a walk

Scheduling out as little as 10 minutes per day to reduce the stresses in your life will allow your brain to slow down and process the information it is given.

Dealing with Stress and a Brain Injury

Stress after a brain injury can be even more challenging because your brain is now constantly under stress. Essentially, additional stress after a concussion is like adding insult to injury.

Stress can trigger post-concussion symptoms, especially if you aren’t managing your stress levels. Stress can make things like being overwhelmed, processing information, remembering things, and other symptoms worse. It is also an indicator that changes are needed to take better care of yourself and your brain, particularly because stress only adds to your symptoms.

Cognitive FX understands the stress your brain is experiencing. We can help alleviate that stress and provide you with a treatment plan to address and improve the stress on your brain. We want you to know that after injury things can get better and that your quality of life can improve. If you or someone you love is injured, we can help.


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