How Chronic Stress Changes the Brain and What Can We Do to Reverse It?
A little stress is a normal part of our daily lives, which can even be a good thing. Overcoming stressful events can make us more emotionally enduring. Nevertheless, when stress becomes severe or chronic due to marital deterioration, death of a family member, or bullying, etc., it should immediately be taken into consideration. Because recurrent stress can have a monumental impact on our brain and cause a series of physical and psychological problems in people.
Recurrent stress can lead to a series of health problems, including inflammation, diabetes and cardiac diseases. Brain is generally protected from the circulating molecules via the blood-brain barrier. However, under recurrent stress, this barrier starts leaking and the circulating inflammatory proteins may enter the brain.
The hippocampus of the brain is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and it is defenseless particularly for such situations. Studies conducted on humans have shown that inflammation could adversely affect motivation and mental agility-oriented cerebral systems.
Furthermore, there are academic data in the literature regarding the fact that chronic stress affects the hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). A high and long-term cortisol has been associated with mood disorders and hippocampal contraction. Moreover, it can also lead to many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycle.
Mood, cognition and behavior
It is a well-known worldwide fact that chronic stress can cause depression. At the same time, it is a recurrent case; people going through depression are under risk for future depression episodes, particularly when under stress.
This has many reasons and they can be associated with the changes in the brain. A contracted hippocampus, which may be caused by constant exposure to stress hormones, is more prevalent in depressive patients than in healthy individuals.
Chemicals, serotonin in the brain included, that change cognition and moods are also changed as a consequence of chronic stress. Serotonin is important for the regulation of the mood. As a matter of fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) are used to reorganize the functional activity of the serotonin in the brains of people with depression.
Sleep and circadian rhythm disorder are a common aspect in many psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, function as a significant modulator in the sleep. Therefore, high levels of cortisol can deteriorate the quality of our sleep. The reorganization of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms can therefore be a treatment approach for these cases.
Depression can yield major consequences. Depression has been shown to adversely affect the cognition in emotional and social fields.
Chronic stress and its effects at work, along with depression and anxiety, may lead to the burnout syndrome that is associated with the increasing frequency of cognitive failure in daily life. As individuals are required to undertake the increasing workload at workplace or at school, this may lead to a vicious cycle by causing their sense of achievement to go down, along with the increasing susceptibility to anxiety.
Stress can also interrupt the balance between rational thinking and emotions. For instance, stressful news about the global spreading of the novel Coronavirus have caused people to hoard hand disinfectants and toilet papers. Despite the government’s assurance on the availability of sufficient stocks, these items cannot be found in supermarkets.
When under stress, brain regions such as putamen, a circular structure located at the base of the forebrain, show more activation. This activation has been associated with the hoarding behavior. Additionally, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in emotional cognition, may increase irrational fears, such as the evaluation of social connections and learning about fear, under stressful situations. As a matter of fact, these fears eventually invalidate the rational decision-making ability of the brain.
But what should you do if you have chronic stress? For instance, we all know that exercising is helpful to cope with chronic stress. Exercising fights inflammation by causing an anti-inflammatory response. Additionally, exercising increases neurogenesis, namely the production of new brain cells, in important regions, such as hippocampus. Furthermore, it improves your mood, cognition and physical health.
Establishing connections with people around you, such as your family, friends and neighbors, is another way to defeat stress. When under stress, relaxation and interaction with your friends and family may help your attention move away from the stressful topic and diminish stressful feelings.
Other methods include awareness that helps us wonder the world around us and lets us live right here and right now.
Being a giver, volunteering for a charity event, or making donations trigger the reward system in our brain and encourage people to have positive feelings about life.
Consequently, if you experience chronic stress, do not wait, and let yourself turn you into a better you. Early diagnosis and early effective treatment are the key for a good result. Remember to act holistically in order to heal your mood, thoughts and physical health. Moreover, learning how to cope with stress at early ages is quite important in order for your brain to remain healthy throughout the life.