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The Effects of Stress on the Brain

Written by: Hilbert College   •  Jan 31, 2024
Effects of Stress

The Effects of Stress on the Brain

Work problems, relationship conflicts, the death of a loved one—all kinds of life experiences can cause a person to experience stress and its effects on their body and mind. A person’s brain can respond to stress in several ways, from instigating a “fight or flight” response to triggering the release of cortisol. Understanding the effects of stress on the brain can help us nurture our mental, physical and emotional health.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Hilbert College Global’s online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program.

The Effects of Stress on the Brain

What Is Stress?

The human brain is constantly assessing threats and controlling the body’s response to them; however, this creates stress that can cause neural circuitry imbalances.

Situational Stress

Situational stress is triggered by a short-term situation. These can include an overdue bill, a fraught work project or an argument with friends. Once the situation passes or is resolved, the stress typically goes away.

Physical Stress

Physical stress occurs over the long term. When a person stays stressed for a long time, their body changes. Not only does their body stay tense and fatigued, but their brain also releases chemicals that can cause anxiety.

Long-Term and Short-Term Stressors

A prime example of a short-term or immediate stressor is traffic. The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of a long-term or lasting stressor. Other situations can feel like both immediate and lasting threats.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2022 Stress in America survey, certain stressors trigger a significant percentage of people. For example, 83% of adults experience stress about inflation, and 76% of adults experience stress about the nation’s future. Other substantial stressors among adults surveyed are mass shootings (73%), health care (70%), the current political climate (66%) and the current racial climate (62%).

What Does the Brain Do Under Stress?

The brain controls the entire body. When a person gets stressed, their brain’s responses can affect their hormones, their physical body and their behavior.

Chemical Changes

Certain chemical reactions occur in the body of a person who is stressed. The hypothalamus releases more of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to a rapid heart rate, sweating and high blood pressure. Stress weakens the immune system, which can lead to a higher susceptibility to viral illness, longer recovery from injuries and more pain overall. In males, testosterone levels drop, which can lead to erectile dysfunction, a lowered sex drive and a higher risk of infection. In females, stress hormones affect the menstrual cycle, which can lead to irregular periods, delayed periods and menopausal symptoms.

Physical Changes

The human body reacts to stress with short-term physical symptoms that include chest pain and a rapid heart rate, headaches, a lack of focus, fatigue, stomach pain and acne. Long-term physical symptoms of stress include obesity, sexual problems, a weakened immune system, heart disease, diabetes and an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

Behavioral Changes

Stress can trigger marked behavioral and emotional changes. These changes can include avoiding tasks, sleep problems, memory issues, anger, the worsening of existing mental health conditions, a reliance on alcohol or drugs and self-isolation.

What Are the Effects of Stress on the Brain?

In addition to causing changes to the physical body, stress can have serious short-term and long-term effects on the brain itself.

Lasting Changes to the Brain Caused by Stress

Stress can cause lasting changes to different parts of the brain. Changes to the brain’s gray matter may affect a person’s decision-making and problem-solving abilities. Changes to the brain’s white matter may affect the connections between regions of their brain and their communication skills.

Stress can also increase the brain’s white matter and decrease its gray matter. This leads to changes in the brain’s structure that may be permanent. Additionally, chronic stress shrinks the parts of the brain that deal with emotions, metabolism and memory. This can make it harder for the person to cope with new stressors in the future.

Temporary Changes to the Brain Caused by Stress

Stress kills brain cells, and new brain cells may die within a week. Though, when the stress subsides, normal brain cell production usually returns.

Stress also causes the brain to produce high levels of cortisol. This can cause a decline in a person’s short-term memory. When the cortisol levels recede, however, their normal memory function typically returns.

How to Deal With Stress

Most people know when they’re feeling stressed, but they may not take steps to help themselves. If someone is feeling stressed, they need to take care of themselves. There are many ways to do this, such as by speaking with a mental health professional, getting rest, hydrating and eating well, and reaching out to people who will support them.

It’s also important that they monitor themselves, and it’s better if they start helping themselves early. They should learn what their normal baseline is, and notice when they feel different. They can also create a plan for when they’re stressed. This plan can include simple steps to follow. They should make sure the people in their support system know the plan.

Self Care Is Important Care

Everyone faces some stress every day. However, untreated, chronic stress can lead to mental health concerns, physical symptoms and changes to the brain. It’s important to understand how stress works and what effects it can have on your body, so you can manage your stress before long-term changes occur. Listen to your body, get help when you need it and know that you’re not alone.

The American Institute of Stress, “What Is Stress?”

American Psychological Association, “Stress in America 2022”

Cleveland Clinic, “Stress”

Cognitive, Affective, and Behavioral Neuroscience, “Anxiety and Hippocampal Neuronal Activity: Relationship and Potential Mechanisms”

The Jed Foundation, “Understanding Stress

Mind, Stress

North Central Behavioral Health Systems, “Dealing With Situational Stress”

Premier Neurology & Wellness Center, “6 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain”

United Nations HR Portal, Understanding and Managing Your Stress

WebMD, “Stress Symptoms”

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