All of us have to go through stressful situations during different phases of our life. This stress can come in a variety of situations such as a demanding job, difficult employer, marriage problems or inability to meet the deadline for submitting an academic assignment.
When you are stressed, your body experiences high heart and breathing rates, in addition to tightness of chest and severe depression. However, most of the times, these stressors are only temporary and our body returns to a normal state as soon as the stressful situation is over. This type of stress is called acute stress. Since this type of stress is only temporary, it does not leave any permanent effect on the body.
It turns out that some of the doses of acute stress may be actually good for us. This is because it helps us in focusing on our problems and in making important decisions. However, when the stress becomes a permanent part of your life, it can significantly affect your physical and mental health. In fact, research has shown that about 90% of the visits to the hospital are directly or indirectly related to stress. This type of chronic stress, in addition to having detrimental effects on your physical well-being, can also seriously damage your mental health.
Understand the Science Behind Stress and Physical Changes in the Brain
By now, we understand that there are two types of stress: acute and chronic. And regardless of the type, when you’re stressed your body will release two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol.
Adrenaline basically prepares your body for an emergency response by helping you focus in high-stress situations. This hormone does not linger in the body and its supply is discontinued as soon as the emergency situation has passed. Therefore, it does not cause any permanent effect on the body.
The second stress hormone, cortisol, acts differently, however. Once this hormone is released because of a stressful situation, it remains in the blood for a long time. This is why it has also been named as the “public enemy No. 1” when it comes to chronic stress. Excessive levels of cortisol in the blood have been linked to various medical conditions like osteoporosis, weight gain, hormonal imbalance, digestive problems, diabetes, cardiac problems, and even cancer! Not only this, but cortisol also take a very high toll on your mental health as well by permanently causing physical damage to the brain cells.
How Stress Changes your Brain?
Here are a few physical changewhich are observed in the brain in response to chronic stress:
- Stress Kills the Brain Cells
When you’re stressed, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol. One of the effects of cortisol release is the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Naturally, this neurotransmitter is essential for brain functioning in optimal doses. However, in excess quantities, it can become lethal for the brain cells. Research carried out on rats has shown that excess levels of glutamate result in the generation of free radicals which punch holes in the brain cells, resulting in their death. This is not the only source of free radicals for your body. If you have a hard time sleeping at night or have a habit of excessive alcohol drinking or smoking, you’re actually increasing the levels of free radicals in your body.
- Stress Slows Down the Generation of New Brain Cells
Like all other cells in our body, many brain cells die each day, but they are simultaneously replaced with new ones, thanks to a protein called the “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF). When the body is stressed, the high levels of cortisol slow down the activity of BDNF. Hence the formation of new brain cells is slowed down. Reduced levels of BDNF have also been linked to various neurological problems like Schizophrenia, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Depression, Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
- Stress Strengthens the “Fear Center”
Long term stress actually strengthens an area of the brain called the amygdala. It results in a considerable increase in the size, neuronal connections, and activity of this part of the brain. As a result, you become more fearful. What’s worse is that it is a vicious cycle. You feel frightened due to stress because there is increased activity in the amygdala which causes increased fear.
- Stress Can Shrink Your Brain
Research has shown that prolonged stress results in shrinkage of the brain, particularly two regions: the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. It has been shown that stress slows the production of new cells in the hippocampus which is part of the brain which stores the memories. Similarly, the size of the prefrontal cortex also becomes considerably smaller due to this stress. This is the region which is responsible for decision making, working memory and controlling impulses.
- Stress Releases Toxins into the Brain
There is a blood-brain barrier in the nervous system which prevents the entry of harmful materials and toxins into the body. Stress has been linked with an increase in the permeability of the brain. Hence, there are increased chances of entry of harmful products into the brain. This is of course, not desirable.
- Stress Causes the Brain Cells to Commit Suicide
Telomeres are basically the “end-caps” attached to the chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, its telomere becomes shorter in length. When the length of the telomere becomes critically small, further cell division stops and the cell dies. Chronic stress has a similar effect on the body. It shortens the life of brain cells and results in their premature death, or “suicide”.
Stress, when it goes unchecked and untreated, can cause serious damage to your physical and mental health. The good news is that there are ways in which you can reduce your stress and start living a happy life. Don’t let stress take control of your life. Seek professional help today and say hello to a beautiful life. Book an appointment or visit us at Springfield Wellness Center.