What do you know about stress and the brain? Or rather—what do you know about brain plasticity? If you’re anything like we were, it’s not much.
Brain plasticity, or neuroplasticity, means the way your brain develops in the first place, as well as later changes in the brain, can be shaped to some extent by your environment. Okay, what? Your brain changes. Even as an adult.
This means that you’re not stuck with the same brain forever (and can we get a high-five for that?). The good news? Your brain changes as you learn new skills and form new memories. The not-so-good news? Not all changes are for the best. Negative events can also shape your brain. And that’s where stress comes in. Both chronic stress and temporary stressful situations can leave their mark on your brain. What part of the brain is associated with stress, you might wonder? It turns out—more than one.
Stress and the Brain: Where it All Goes Down
In honor of Stress Awareness Month, let’s take a look at stress and the brain—what parts of the brain it most affects and how it works. And don’t worry—this isn’t all a downer. You can make positive brain-changes too. And we’ll give you some ideas to get started. Ready?
Prefrontal cortex: When executive function malfunctions
What it does:
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps you with complex thoughts and behaviors (yes, you have complex thoughts). This includes working memory, decision-making, and social behaviors. The work of the prefrontal cortex is generally called “executive function.” Basically, if you’re debating the merits of taking a “sick” day at the beach, working toward a goal, or realizing that having a filter can be useful in some situations, that’s your prefrontal cortex helping you out.
Here’s where stress and the brain take a turn for the worse: When you get stressed, there’s some malfunctioning in your executive functions—namely involving your memory.
What happens during short-term stress:
Your short-term memory is negatively affected.
Stress causes high levels of dopamine and noradrenaline—neurotransmitters that help your brain function properly. This neurotransmitter spike keeps your neurons from communicating the way they need to for your brain to form memories. In short, your memory takes a hit.
What happens during states of long-term stress:
If you’re chronically stressed, this process happens over and over and can even shrink parts of the neurons that make up the prefrontal cortex.
Amygdala and hippocampus: Partners in crime
What it does:
When you think about stressful situations, you might think “fight or flight.” Turns out, you’re thinking about your amygdala and probably didn’t even know it. (But now you do. You’re welcome.)
The amygdala controls your emotional responses, especially fear, and helps your brain store memories. The amygdala works closely with the hippocampus, which plays an important role in memory, navigation, and emotional response. As you can probably guess, this means that stress has a big impact on these parts of the brain.
What happens during stress:
Chronic stress and acute stressful situations, especially early in life, can actually change the way the amygdala and hippocampus work and connect. When you experience a stressful event, the amygdala and hippocampus connect more strongly. More connections mean that it’s harder for you to recover from the stress. The increased connections are temporary, but research has found that having more stress can lead to longer periods of amygdala and hippocampus connection. This means your brain might not recover as well from stress later in life, and you might form stronger memories of stressful events.
Because the amygdala and hippocampus help you process your emotions and social situations, problems with these areas can also cause behavioral and emotional problems. There’s also evidence that increased brain activity from stress early in life can actually cause neurons to die. When this happens, the amygdala and hippocampus become smaller, and you might not be able to control your emotions as well.
Hypothalamus: The cortisol control-center
What it does:
You’ve probably heard about cortisol—the thing your body releases when you get stressed. It’s a hormone that helps your body control its metabolism and reduce inflammation. This changes how your body functions and puts you in fight-or-flight mode. You know the one—your heart rate increases, your digestive and immune systems slow down, and your brain is triggered to recognize the situation. When the stressful situation is over, your cortisol levels and body functions go back to normal. At least in theory.
Cortisol is ultimately released by your adrenal glands, near your kidneys. But the process starts with the hypothalamus. This region of the brain controls your body’s hormones, as well as responds to internal and external conditions to keep your body functions stable and constant. When you get stressed, your hypothalamus releases a hormone that travels to your pituitary gland, which then tells your adrenal glands to release cortisol.
It’s like a game of telephone for your adrenal glands. Except the message stays intact the whole time.
What happens during stress:
Too much or too little cortisol can seriously hurt your body, so the hypothalamus carefully regulates the amount circulating. If you have chronic stress, the hypothalamus and the rest of this system is activated more often than it should be.
When your body has so much cortisol from chronic stress, it gets used to these high levels. So when you have a stressful situation later, your hypothalamus has to release more cortisol to get an appropriate stress response. This leads to a cycle where your body has to keep releasing more cortisol after every stressful event, which can cause other health problems, including anxiety, digestive problems, depression, heart disease, and more fun things literally no one wants.
The good changes
Here’s a fun fact about stress and the brain (and the good news we promised): Plasticity works both ways. Your brain can be negatively affected by stress, but it can also return to a more normal state afterward.
For example, when a stressful event is over, your brain can actually re-form the connections it needs in the prefrontal cortex, especially if you’re relatively young. This even happens after chronic stress. There’s also evidence that exercise can restore some of the size of the hippocampus, even if it shrinks from stress.
So while no one is able to fully avoid stress in their lives, remember that your brain is sort of a badass. It can adapt to many situations. Taking steps to bust stress can help you reverse, or at least protect against, negative brain changes.
What else affects your brain positively? Stuff life cognitive behavioral therapy, being around people you love, and moving your body are all linked to positive changes in the brain.
To sum it up…
Stress and the brain have a complicated relationship. But you do have some control here. You can manage your stress before it reaches critical volume. So get out into the world. Go for a walk outside, call a friend, join a workout class, take a breather, whatever chills you out. Your brain will take care of the rest.
Still struggling? Reach out to a therapist. Stress management is their bread and butter. And we believe in bread around here. Don’t you?
Check out this video on chronic stress and the brain for a more in-depth explanation and some cool bear visuals.
Your turn: Have any of these stress and the brain facts changed the way you think about your stress management? What’s your top stress-busting technique?
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Author: Erica Hersh
Erica Hersh is a health writer, editor, and communications strategist based in Boston, MA. In 2014, she fulfilled her lifelong dream of being on Jeopardy. She did not, however, fulfill her dream of winning on Jeopardy.