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How Does Stress Affect the Brain?
It’s probably fair to say that most people feel some degree of stress and anxiety during their day. It certainly doesn’t feel good at all. Needless to say, we need to reduce the stressors in our life as much as possible or we run the risk of harming our physical and mental health in many ways.
We all feel an anxiety response to any threatening situation and the body is ready to fight or flee. This response causes the body to produce norepinephrine and cortisol. These stress hormones power up the body’s senses so that perception and speed are improved in the immediate short-term. The heart rate quickens, and the body is ready to act! However, if stress like this is put on your body continually, after a while it takes its toll.
The Differences between Stress and Anxiety
Let’s take a look at the differences, as you may be putting stress and anxiety into the same basket, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two. At first glance, anxiety does look a lot like stress. Experts explain that anxiety may occur as a result of undue stress. Stress certainly can make a person feel the same symptoms: sad, depressed, anxious or fearful, which are the same as anxiety.
However, the cause of the anxiety may not be apparent. Someone with anxiety may not know why they feel that way, whereas stress can be caused by many factors in the person’s environment. Therefore, stress can be caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response.
Chronic Stress Changes Your Brain
Prolonged exposure to stress triggers the creation of hard-wired pathways located between the amygdala and hippocampus. These newly created pathways can predispose a person to constantly suffer from stress.
The amygdala is the part of the brain which plays a crucial role in helping the brain process sensory signals. The amygdala is responsible for quickly alerting the brain of an imminent threat. This triggers the brain, producing an anxious or fearful response.
The hippocampus is responsible for encoding memories. Evidence from studies show that people who have experienced abuse or traumatic events have a smaller hippocampus. This is because prolonged exposure to acute stress shrinks the hippocampus.
Chronic stress also leads to a reduction in the number of stem cells. Unfortunately, these stem cells are crucial for a person’s memory and learning.
This explains why chronic stress makes it hard to absorb new information, while also causing a decline in memory. No wonder a stressed-out person finds it hard to remember things and is said to be forgetful. They may regularly misplace their keys or forget appointments.
Chronic Stress Causes Brain Cells to Die
If chronically stressed, the hormone cortisol is produced. This production triggers the creation of a glutamate surplus which also causes free radicals. These free radicals have been found to attack the cells of the brain. This attack is similar to oxygen attacking a metal that results in the metal rusting. These free radicals create holes in the cell walls, and ultimately causing cell death.
Stress Inhibits the Production of New Brain Cells
We all lose and produce brain cells daily. A type of protein called BDNF, or Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor, plays an important role in helping the brain produce new cells and making sure the brain cells are healthy. Some experts refer to BDNF as the brain’s fertilizer. It has the ability to offset the adverse effects of stress on the brain.
However, chronic stress, which makes the body chronically produce cortisol hormones, can inhibit BDNF production. This results in the low production of new cells. Studies have shown that low levels of BDNF are linked to dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression and OCD.
Severe Stress Increases the Risk of Toxins in the Brain
Your brain has a semi-permeable filter commonly referred to as the “blood-brain barrier”, which is a group of cells. These cells perform a special task that allows nutrients to enter the brain, while making sure that harmful substances don’t. Severe stress can weaken this barrier and pathogens, harmful chemicals, toxins and heavy metals may enter the brain.
Can Your Brain Health Recover?