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The Neuroscience of Stress: How It Affects You and Your Brain & What to Do


Stress can make your life considerably less colorful.


Aren’t we all stressed in life? To some extent, at least? Well, studies on neuroscience show that we might need to try another way - chronic stress is proved to be seriously affecting the human cognition, emotional system, and the structure of the brain itself. In this article, we will discover how stress has changed us, our lives, and of course our most complex organ, our brains, together.


First of all, it is important to mention that stress isn’t always defined as bad - we might even benefit from it in some cases. Many psychologists and neuroscientists agree that people should feel some stress in daily life, as the healthy amount of stress will serve people to have an organized life and drive them to succeed in the long term.

The issues start to arise when the stress level keeps increasing day by day through a period of time and eventually reaches a chronic state. The well-known and absolutely true information is that chronic stress threatens both physical and psychological health: now, let’s find the answers to the question how.


Undergoing intense stress is found to trigger inflammation in the body, which basically means that your immune system steps in to “fight” with an external factor while causing you fatigue and discomfort. In this process, your body releases inflammatory proteins that circulate around through your vessels.

Normally, our brains are separated from circulating materials through a blood-brain barrier (BBB) so that “things don’t get mixed up” there.


(The anatomy of the blood-brain barrier)


However, the BBB structurally weakens under long-term excessive stress, and starts to leak small amounts of circulating molecules, including inflammatory proteins, into the brain tissue. What happens in this case is called brain inflammation which harms the nerves and leads to shrinkage in the brain, mental fatigue and problems regarding the memory. Inflammations occurring in the brain are also linked to diminishment in motivation and mental agility, factors which are expected to negatively affect satisfaction and the quality of life.



(The hippocampus)


The blue portion of the brain you see on the image is the hippocampus and is initially responsible for learning and memory. While it is one of the most important sections of our brains, it is also highly sensitive to any external factors which affect the body, including inflammation. Research has shown that the hippocampus might be reduced in terms of size due to the leakage of inflammatory molecules into the brain tissue, provoking weakening in memory and learning abilities.


Our brains continuously produce various brain chemicals that regulate how we feel, behave, and respond to external factors. Under chronic stress, the brain activates the fight-or-flight response and produces a quite high amount of cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. While the release of normal levels of cortisol regulates the body’s biological system and protects the person from any danger by keeping them in alert to surrounding stimuli, the excessive production of it has detrimental effects to the behavioral and emotional patterns with the structure of the brain.


(An illustration of the portions that are primarily affected by extreme stress)


High levels of cortisol result with an increase in the neural signals traveling around and between the hippocampus and the amygdala -the “fear center” of the brain- rendering the two structures strongly connected. A ‘strong connection’ between two portions of the brain might not sound bad, yet stronger the connections between the amygdala and the hippocampus are, the quicker you respond to fear and stress. This means that as long as you’re extremely stressed, you will feel scared and burnt out easier and sooner.


Earlier, we have mentioned that the hippocampus can shrink in volume due to excessive stress.

What do you think: Is it only the hippocampus in our brains that undergoes this situation?

Many research on neuroscience has proven that high cortisol levels (or we can call it too much stress) in the body may lead to shrinkage in numerous parts of the brain including the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex through damaging the synaptic connections between the neurons and prevent the maximum rate of regulation. Any weakening or shrinkage in the amygdala and/or the hippocampus points out to difficulties in stress and response management while the impairment of the prefrontal cortex is mainly associated with awkward social interactions, difficulties in decision-making and disoriented patterns of behavior & emotions.


(A chart that simply summarizes this article)


If you’re currently undergoing chronic stress, it is highly possible that you easily forget many things that you might want to remember later and you have a hard time processing new information. Maybe stress was why you felt like you understood nothing from your last math class, why you forgot the answer to the easiest question in your test, or why you didn’t recognize the girl who waved to you in the hallway. Who knows?


For the sake of our physiological and mental health, we have to take a leap of faith to let go of the stress that has been making our lives more and more difficult and search for ways to live a happier, calmer life.

Even though you are encouraged to carry out further reading and research with gaining personal experience on what works best for you, here are a few suggestions on how to rest your brain after undergoing heavy stress for some time:

  • Meditate/Pray. Science has proven that meditating is a highly effective way to heal the brain from excessive stress as it slows down the breathing pattern, hence clears the brain fog and helps establish better focus. However, some people are hesitant to meditate as it’s considered a religious practice, and it might not be appropriate for all religions. If you have any religious concerns regarding meditation, praying might be a better option for you: after all, creating inner peace is the aim.

  • Eat healthy. Strong levels of cortisol are inevitable when you follow an unhealthy diet: consuming processed food with great glucose content triggers the excessive production of cortisol in the body. On this basis, following a healthy, balanced diet by which your body fulfills its required intake of protein, minerals, vitamins and fibers seems like a wise choice.

  • Spend time with people you love. Talking to people you deeply care about and sharing what you feel with them pushes your brain to produce oxytocin, the love hormone, which will make you feel happier and shift your perspective to a more optimistic state.

  • Get adequate amounts of sleep. We all know the saying “Sleep is the best medicine.” Most sayings aren’t quite scientific - but science definitely confirms this one. Numerous research claim that it is profoundly important for people to get the daily amount of sleep according to their individual biological clocks so that they can maintain a healthy, happy life.



Works Cited:

  1. Sahakian, B. J., Langley, C., & Kaser, M. (2018). How chronic stress changes the brain – and what you can do to reverse the damage (Mar. 2020). In The Conversation (Ed.), The Conversation.

  2. The stress response and how it can affect you. (2017). In S. G. Maharaja (Ed.), Teen health series: Stress information for teens: health tips about the mental and physical consequences of stress including information about the causes of stress, types of stressors, effects of stress, strategies for managing stress, and more (3rd ed.). Omnigraphics, Inc.

  3. Samuels, M. (2018, November 6). Stress Associated with Impaired Memory, Lower Brain Volumes. Boston University School of Public Health. https://www.bu.edu/sph/news/articles/2018/stress-associated-with-impaired-memory-lower-brain-volumes/

  4. Alban, D. (2022, March 2). Brain Inflammation: Symptoms, Causes, How to Reduce It. Be Brain Fit. https://bebrainfit.com/brain-inflammation/#:~:text=If%20chronic%20inflammation%20establishes%20itself,brain%20fog%2C%20and%20memory%20loss

  5. (2020, November 1). How Chronic Stress can Shrink the Brain. Wellbeing Physiotherapy. https://www.wellbeingphysiotherapy.com.au/post/chronic-stress-effects-on-the-brain

  6. 6 Ways To Help The Brain Heal From Stress. Headington Institute. https://www.headington-institute.org/resource/6-ways-to-help-the-brain-heal-from-stress/

  7. Swenor, M. E. (2020, May 12). Stressed? 10 Ways To Lower Your Cortisol Levels. Henry Ford Health. https://www.henryford.com/blog/2020/05/how-to-lower-your-cortisol-levels#:~:text=Here's%20why%3A%20Cortisol%20

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