5 effects of stress on the brain
There are many people who feel stress in their daily lives. Many will say it is a bad’s of modern societies, but it is not, as it is a biological alarm system necessary for survival. A certain degree of stress can stimulate the body and allow it to achieve its goal, returning to the basal state when the stimulus has ceased.
However, the problem arises when stress is maintained over time and a state of resistance is introduced. Certain circumstances, such as work overload, economic or social pressures, are subconsciously perceived as a threat. Our lives are not in danger, but nevertheless, our body reacts as such. It is then when you begin to feel a sense of anxiety, which if prolonged can cause a state of fatigue, with possible changes in our body.
Long-term stress can be harmful to the body and even affect the immune system in the heart. Therefore, it is not surprising that the brain can also be affected by stress, as it is the central organ of perception. The brain is the one that ultimately determines which aspects of the world around us are threatening and therefore potentially threatening.
Studies show that stress can cause memory loss or a reduction in size. Let’s see how stress can affect our brains.
What is stress?
Stress is a state of acute tension that occurs when we have to react to a situation that we perceive as a threat With When we are stressed, then, different areas of our brain are activated, such as the amygdala, which is responsible for generating emotions; hippocampus, which manages memory.
It also activates the prefrontal cortex, which regulates cognitive processes, such as attention and problem solving, and the hypothalamus, an endocrine gland that is responsible for linking brain activity to hormonal production in order to regulate physiological activity with the rest of the body. .
Despite the negative connotations associated with stress, one-off stress does not always have to be harmful, but on the contrary, stress can be crucial to individual survival.
In the face of a potential threat, both physical and psychological, it is necessary for the body and mind to respond quickly and accurately. Cortisol is needed for this response , a hormone that alters cellular metabolism and at the same time mobilizes energy reserve substances, which allow muscles to receive more energy and use it faster. Simply put, stress prepares the body to respond.
Stress also affects the brain. In particular, it makes it easier to focus attention on the potential threat, so that we can anticipate our reactions as much as possible. In this sense, the ability to stress ourselves can be beneficial, as it allows us to react to a dangerous situation with more guarantees of success.
But still, when we talk about chronic stress, the situation is different With Seeing that it changes the neurochemical balance of the brain, they all affect the aforementioned areas, hindering our reasoning and making us react more impulsively. Until recently, these effects were thought to be transient, but research shows that prolonged stress can cause permanent disruption to neural connections.
What are the effects of stress on the brain?
Chronic stress can involve changes in the functioning and structure of our brain, as one of the effects of cortisol is a decrease in neuronal plasticity. Let’s see what its effects are:
1Causes changes in neurons
In a study conducted at Rosalind Franklin University, researchers noticed that cortisol may have a toxic effect on hippocampal neurons. The hippocampus, in addition to being one of the regions associated with memory and learning, is also one of the areas where neurogenesis occurs, the formation of new neurons.
Cortisol can reduce the activity of some neurons in the hippocampus or affect their survival. In principle, some effects can be reversed if stress is stopped, although there are studies showing that exposure to stress at an early age can leave a mark on neurons that can be difficult to eliminate.
2. It changes the structure of the brain
Long-term stress can cause differences between gray and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is made up of bodies of neurons (or soma) and glia cells (supporting cells), responsible for higher-order thinking, such as decision-making and problem-solving. White matter, on the other hand, is made up of axons, an extension of neurons that form a network of fibers with the function of binding them together.
White matter gets this name because the exons are covered by a white fat envelope called myelin, which protects the axons and accelerates the flow of electrical signals from one cell to another. It has been observed that chronic stress can increase myelin production, creating an imbalance between the gray matter and white matter of the brain , which can lead to changes in brain structure.
3. Reduces brain volume
Stress can create a decrease in areas of the brain associated with the regulation of emotions, metabolism and memory . In a Yale University study, it was found that repeated exposure to stress caused a reduction in gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, a region that is responsible for regulating emotions.
Chronic, daily stress seemed to have little effect on brain volume per se. However, the negative effect on brain volume seems to be greater in people who have suffered from episodes of stress and intense trauma.
Accumulating stressful events in a person’s life can make it harder for these individuals to deal with future events, especially if the next event requires strong control over emotions or great social elaboration to overcome it.
4. Affects memory
In a 2012 study it was observed that chronic stress has a negative impact on what is known as spatial memory, the type of memory that allows us to remember information about the location of objects in the environment, as well as spatial orientation.
For example, animal experiments have shown that in situations of chronic stress, cortisol reduces the number of brain connections or neuronal synapses in the frontal lobes, an area that retains the memory of recent events.
If this situation is repeated, our worries will steal some of our attention, and this is when it is difficult for us to remember seemingly insignificant data, such as where we left our car or cell phone keys. The fact of the matter is that we do not store information well, not so much in the way we receive it. This is mainly because when we suffer from stress for a long time it is harder for us to focus on In other words, instead of paying attention to what we are doing, we are paying attention to our thoughts, made ourselves act mechanically and feel more dispersed.
5. Increases the risk of mental disorders
Stress is known to play an important role in the promotion and evolution of mental illnesses, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders and depression On the other hand, stress can also be a risk factor for substance use and abuse.
Stress reduces self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as predisposes them to display aggressive reactions and behaviors, as it increases impulsivity. Regarding the occurrence of depressive states, it has been seen that stress impedes the functioning of the brain’s pleasure and reward systems, which, in turn, negatively affects the sense of optimism.
All of these effects are magnified in infants and teens, as their brains are much more plastic and malleable. In this sense, the stress experienced in childhood and adolescence leaves a mark on the brain that can affect the behavior of these people throughout their lives, which is not always easy to eliminate