In times of high stress, your mental health is often one of the first changes you'll notice. Perhaps your once happy-go-lucky attitude has been replaced by a negative outlook. Or maybe you're finding yourself overcome with negative and compulsive thoughts. Stress can mess with your mind in a number of ways. But as it turns out, there are physiological explanations for nearly all of the effects of stress and we're going to tell you more about them in this post. So, if you've always wondered how stress affects the brain (and what you can do about it), this is one post you won't want to miss!
Before we begin exploring how stress affects the brain, let's first do a recap of how stress works in general.
As much as stress has a negative connotation, it's not always a bad thing. Stress is, in fact, a response to threats. It's meant to protect us.
For example, when your brain tells your body to protect itself from a stressor or threat, a number of things happen. One being our digestion slows down so those resources can instead go toward fighting off whatever threat you are facing.
It's all thanks to a number of stress hormones that these things happen, including the big one: cortisol!
As Harvard Health Publishing explains:
"When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee."
As a result of making sure the rest of the body has the energy it needs to fight or flee, a number of other systems are affected. In addition to digestive changes we just mentioned, this can also include things like sweating, increased heart rate, and muscle tension.
These things don't seem so bad on their surface. After all, you'll most certainly want the energy to escape an impending threat when it appears.
But here's the problem, with chronic or ongoing stress, we end up in a constant state of "fight-or-flight." We can't relax, and over time, this leads to a cascade of effects on the brain and body.
When it comes to exactly how stress affects the brain, there are a number of profound findings from medical studies worth covering.
Interestingly, stress can not only change the structure of certain parts of the brain, but researchers have also discovered it can even cause parts of the brain to shrink.
For example, this study from Stanford University found that stress can actually shrink the neurons in the brain.
Now, before you begin panicking about shrinking your brain from stress, it's worth noting this is usually the result of long-term chronic stress. At the same time, this type of stress is also different from the anxiety many of us feel on a daily basis.
So that brings us here to your next question: What's the difference between stress and anxiety?
Simply put, anxiety is a feeling whereas stress is a physical response. Stress is something that can be actively measured by testing the levels of stress hormones (like cortisol) in the body. On the other hand, anxiety is subjective, and it can only be measured on a personal scale.
This doesn't mean, however, that stress and anxiety don't relate to one another at all! In response to stress, we may begin to experience anxiety. For example, if we have a rise in stress hormones thinking about an upcoming test? This in turn causes us to feel anxiety.
Now it's time to talk more about the effects of chronic stress—rather than acute stress or anxiety—on the brain. When it comes to how stress affects the brain, the findings tend to be ever-evolving. Research is constantly being done on the topic and there are many gray areas still left undiscovered.
Chronic stress means high levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, over time. Ultimately, a higher level of this hormone has a dramatic effect on the brain. But also on a number of the body's systems! From digestive changes to mood changes, respiratory changes, and even reproductive consequences, there is virtually no part of your body stress can't touch.
But since this post is all about how stress affects the brain, let's talk more about that.
In this Ted Talk from journalist Madhumita Murgia, she offers one of the most straightforward explanations for how chronic stress affects the brain:
"Chronic stress increases the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala, your brain's fear center. And as levels of cortisol rise, electric signals in your hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with learning, memories, and stress control, deteriorate. The hippocampus also inhibits the activity of the HPA axis, so when it weakens, so does your ability to control your stress. That's not all, though.
Cortisol can literally cause your brain to shrink in size. Too much of it results in the loss of synaptic connections between neurons and the shrinking of your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that regulates behaviors like concentration, decision-making, judgement, and social interaction. It also leads to fewer new brain cells being made in the hippocampus. This means chronic stress might make it harder for you to learn and remember things, and also set the stage for more serious mental problems, like depression and eventually Alzheimer's disease."
It's easy to start panicking once you learn more about what stress can do to the brain. It's a vicious cycle, because worrying about what stress can do to the brain only causes more stress. Stress, in many ways, is inevitable. And as we've covered, a certain amount is good. But once it becomes chronic, this is when the negative consequences can start to set it.
But rather than feeling doomed about a life of stress, what if you took action today? What if there was a way to become more resilient to life's stress and set yourself up for mental and physical well-being? There are a number of ways of doing this you might already be aware of—you know, things like exercise, meditation, and eating well.
(Take a look at this post to learn more about building emotional resilience)
There is one method you might not have considered yet and it's one we're eager to tell you more about: vagus nerve stimulation.
Did you know your brain and body are designed with the ability to self-soothe during or after stressful moments? It’s a process we know as neuromodulation. This is where your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to slow your heart rate and breathing in moments of heightened tension..AKA, when you're in flight-or-fight mode! Your vagus nerve is the ultimate ‘chill-out’ machine, signalling the brain to release calming neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and serotonin.
There are a few different ways to experience VNS for yourself. For centuries, different populations have been practicing a number of methods for doing so, including deep breathing, cold water plunges, and meditation.
There are also more invasive methods of VNS, including surgical implantation of a neurostimulating device in the neck.
But let's say you're not eager to take a cold plunge or have a surgical procedure to experience the calming effects of VNS. Well, prepare to meet your new best friend: Xen headphones by Neuvana!
Xen is a patented electronic device that delivers gentle micropulses through headphones directly to the vagus nerve located in your ear. It pairs wirelessly to your Neuvana app, where you can customize your sessions. The result? Improved focus and calm anywhere you are.
Ready to try it for yourself? Click here to get Xen.