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How Stress Rewires Your Brain and What You Can Do About It

Stress, It’s Inevitable.

Stress is something that every living person experiences from time to time, at varying intensities.

Stress is your body’s way of responding to demands or threats — whether real or perceived. When you feel threatened, a chemical reaction occurs in your body that allows you to act in a way to prevent injury. Your heart rate increases, breathing quickens, muscles tighten, and blood pressure rises… This reaction is known as “fight-or-flight,” or the stress response.

This stress-response can save our lives if we need to escape from a burning building or react quickly to an oncoming threat.  But, your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. When stress is chronic, the emotional and physiological impact on the body can be devastating.

Stress has a profound effect on the brain.  Stress can even begin “rewiring” our consciousness and make changes in the brain’s circuitry. This “rewiring” can be caused by hormones such as cortisol, and neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

Stress & Cortisol

Cortisol is the body’s primary stress hormone (6). It is important for helping your body deal with stressful situations, as your brain triggers its release in response to many different kinds of stress. Cortisol can have beneficial effects, such as helping your body adapt to exercise and demands. It starts to become a problem, however, when it is constantly elevated. While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the buildup of cortisol in the brain can have long-term effects.

Stress & Neurotransmitters

Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine are released in response to happiness, pleasure, excitement, and motivation, but stress – and consistent elevation in cortisol -can have a negative effect on these neurotransmitters over time.

Initially, stress will cause a surge in serotonin levels which then leads to serotonin depletion and results in low levels of serotonin (5). Low serotonin levels increase the susceptibility to long-term anxiety and depression (7).

Dopamine is released in the brain in response to excitement and gets you motivated for a task or event. Chronic stress may deplete or desensitize the effects of dopamine (1). Therefore, it will be more difficult to have the feeling of excitement or motivation and you will not be as sensitive to these emotions when dopamine is released.

Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways (3). It can disrupt the way neurons function, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. This is especially true in young people whose brains are developing. Later in life, these individuals may not be able to cope with stress as effectively because their brains have been rewired. This is evidenced by rising rates of depression (2).

Stress can also kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. High levels of stress can change the ratio of gray matter and white matter in the brain. Gray matter is responsible for learning, memory, and transmitting signals, whereas white matter sends signals throughout the neuron (4). Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning. Stress can overproduce white matter, which is a trademark of neurological disorders such as depression.

Improve Your Ability to Handle Stress

Stress is a part of life. What matters most is how you handle it.  Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce your levels. Here are a few lifestyle, diet and relaxation tips to lower cortisol levels:

Exercise – Exercise decreases cortisol at night and releases endorphins that promote happiness. Get moving! Keep moving!

Practice Relaxation  –Various relaxation exercises have been proven to reduce cortisol levels. Deep breathing is a simple technique for stress reduction that can be used anywhere. Multiple studies confirm that yoga can reduce cortisol and manage stress. Regular participation in tai chi has also been shown to be effective. Finally, mediation is a powerful way  to relax the mind and decrease cortisol.

Sunlight (Vitamin D) – Greater exposure to sunlight and vitamin D3 can reduce symptoms or feelings of depression. Vitamin D3 is one of the dietary supplements known to help balance cortisol levels.

Managing relationships – Poor relationships may lead to chronic stress. Within couples, conflict results in a short-term elevation in cortisol, followed by a return to normal levels. Be kind to one another. Support from loved ones can also help reduce cortisol in the face of stress.

Diet –Sugar intake is one of the classic triggers for cortisol release. Regular, high sugar intakes may keep your levels elevated – so steer clear! Also -dehydration increases cortisol. Water is great for hydrating while avoiding empty calories. Ensuring proper vitamin and mineral intake will allow neurochemicals to work more effectively

Reducing stimulant intake – stimulants such as caffeine can lead to increased feelings of stress and anxiety. If a substance is making you feel jittery, then your cortisol levels are likely surging.

Try the simple lifestyle tips above to lower your cortisol levels, have more energy, improve your health and preserve your brain.

Resources

  1. Belujon, P., & Grace, A. A. (2015). Regulation of dopamine system responsivity and its adaptive and pathological response to stress. Proc. R. Soc. B, 282(1805), 20142516.
  2. Brody, D. J., Pratt, L. A., & Hughes, J. P. (2018). Prevalence of Depression Among Adults Aged 20 and Over: United States, 2013-2016. NCHS data brief, (303), 1-8.
  3. Chetty, S., Friedman, A. R., Taravosh-Lahn, K., Kirby, E. D., Mirescu, C., Guo, F., … & Tsai, M. K. (2014). Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Molecular psychiatry, 19(12), 1275.
  4. Indiana University. (n.d.). Grey and White Matter. Retrieved from http://www.indiana.edu/~p1013447/dictionary/greywhit.htm
  5. Kawahara, H., Yoshida, M., Yokoo, H., Nishi, M., & Tanaka, M. (1993). Psychological stress increases serotonin release in the rat amygdala and prefrontal cortex assessed by in vivo microdialysis. Neuroscience letters, 162(1-2), 81-84.
  6. Warner, S. (2005). What is Cortisol?. 1 st Endurance.
  7. Young, S. N., & Leyton, M. (2002). The role of serotonin in human mood and social interaction: insight from altered tryptophan levels. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 71(4), 857-865.

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