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How Chronic Stress Impacts The Brain (And What You Can Do About It)

Stress. This word can evoke a variety of emotions within us, and means different things to different people. You might immediately think about the length of your to-do list. Or maybe it is a relationship that is stressing you out. Perhaps, even, it is a financial pressure or career choice that is causing you to feel the effects of stress.

You might be surprised to learn that some stress is good for us (and more on this in a second). It’s actually beneficial to keep our brains functioning properly.

I have had a love affair with the brain for years. The more I learn about this organ, the more I want to learn. This passion even lead me to launch a consulting company that teaches people about the brain! One of the most impactful things that I have learned during this journey is how impactful chronic stress is on us. Spoiler alert: chronic stress is not good for our brains and bodies. Chronic stress impacts the brain very negatively and can have a ripple effect on your body and health.

How Chronic Stress Impacts The Brain

The Types Of Stress

There are two types of stress: acute and chronic.

Acute stress is actually good for our brains and is short and does not have lasting effects on us. When you almost hit someone in your car and have to stop and get anxious about that. That is acute stress. When you are in an unhealthy relationship that consistently makes you feel stressed and anxious, this is chronic stress.

Chronic, toxic stress is constant and consistent stress. There are a variety of things that can cause chronic stress, but some examples are a dysfunctional family, major work issues, abusive or unhealthy relationships.

I would encourage you to pause here and think about your stress. What is stressing you out? Do you think it is acute or chronic? Having an understanding of the type of stress you are dealing with will help you to manage the symptoms.

The Process of Stress

I won’t get too scientific on you, but stress sets off a process in the brain that can have long-term effects on your body.

The amygdala is in the back part of our brain and is almond-shaped. It is the fight, flight or freeze part of our brain. It also controls our impulses and attaches emotions to memories. With experiencing any type of stress, the amygdala sets off a process that increases adrenaline and cortisol and increases our heart rate.

When we are experiencing acute, short-term stress, our heart rate goes down and our adrenaline and cortisol levels will decrease after a relatively short amount of time. With consistent, unrelenting stress, the levels of cortisol and adrenaline don’t decrease. That means are heart rate does not go down to a normal level. Additionally, because cortisol is involved in so many things in our bodies, it decreases our ability fight infections, can make us gain weight, is linked to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and early death.

Additionally, we can experience memory loss as well as decreased levels of serotonin and dopamine. Those two chemicals are linked to happiness. When they’re too low, this can lead to anxiety and depression. Finally, chronic stress can increase the size of our amygdala and decrease the size of our prefrontal cortex. That is to say that we become more impulsive and have a harder time with decision making, long-term planning, focusing and organizing.

Stress In-Real-Life

In one of my previous jobs, I was definitely dealing with chronic stress. I loved my job but always felt like I had so much going on and never could find the bottom of my to-do list.

The increased levels of cortisol definitely caused weight gain (particularly in my belly — yikes). While the job fit my interests, passions, talents, and skills, it was not a healthy environment for me to be in. The chronic stress was wreaking havoc on my life and nothing is worth the risk of the symptoms I listed above — including early death.

How To Cope With Chronic Stress

Now that I have told you about the gloom and doom associated with stress, I want to give you some coping mechanisms.

  1. Deep breathing and meditation.

    Meditation and deep breathing increases the oxygen in your brain and can physically calm you down. Meditation creates a reaction that is the opposite of the “fight or flight” response that stress induces. According to WebMD, “training our bodies on a daily basis to achieve this state of relaxation can lead to enhanced mood, lower blood pressure, improved digestion, and a reduction of everyday stress.” There are a variety of apps that you can use to introduce meditation into your life- Simple Habit is my favorite. I would encourage meditation on a regular basis so that it can really help when you need it.

  2. Progressive muscle relaxation.

    With this exercise, you tense up muscle groups then release them one at a time. WebMD says you can’t be anxious (or stressed) when your body is relaxed. They dedicate a whole page to progressive muscle relaxation and let you know how to do it. Again, regular practice makes it easier it implement when you need it.

  3. Decrease expose to your chronic stressor.

    I recognize that we can’t always eliminate the things that cause us stress in our lives, but when you can, you should. Perhaps it’s time to consider ending that relationship, changing careers, or cutting off a toxic friend.

  4. Create a self-care routine.

    It goes without saying that a self-care routine can help decrease stress in the moment and in the long-term. A key element to self-care is that you are taking time for yourself away from what causes you stress. Here are four ways to avoid burnout and our guide to creating your own self-care routine.

  5. Therapy.

    If you are really struggling to handle the chronic stress in your life, I would recommend spending some time with a therapist, someone who is trained to help provide assistance to people. Often time therapy is necessary for us to work through our mental barriers and issues to have a clear understanding of who we are. Having a professional to talk to can also help reduce the stress you are carrying.

In Conclusion

We all deal with stress, and it’s only natural that some points in our lives will be more stressful than others. If you are feeling the effects of chronic stress, I encourage you to evaluate the source of that stress. If you aren’t able to remove it immediately, use some of the coping mechanisms we discussed to lessen the effects. Your brain is depending on it.

I recently hosted a webinar about chronic stress and the brain with Bossed Up. If you have 45 minutes, you should check it out here to learn more.

About the Author

Jessica Sharp

Jessica Sharp is passionate about empowering underserved and minority communities, diverse representation, and brain education. Jessica is the Founder and Chief Educator of Sharp Brain Consulting which works with public service agencies to provide education about the brain and its effect on organizational outcomes. Additionally, she is on the leadership team of Meals on Wheels in her town of Greenville, SC. She is completing a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Missouri. Upon her completion, she will attend William James College to obtain a Doctorate of Psychology. Follow her on twitter at @sharpjes.