Chronic Stress and the Brain

It seems everyone knows what “stress” is and what it feels like. Most of us agree that stress typically does not feel very good and places the mind and body in a precarious position. We know many things can cause stress and some of the reaction of being stressed is subjective, based on a personal perception. These examples might include being in traffic, waiting for an elevator, waiting for the doctor, or having to deal with perceived incompetence. However, more life threatening stressors such as near death from a motor vehicle accident, child abuse, sexual trauma, war, etc. can impose a more chronic form of stress.

The brain reacts to stress by having a survival type instinct in which you will either run or fight the stressor. Some research indicates this is primarily a male response and that women may be better at actually working with the stressing agent to ameliorate the stress. Perhaps the latter is a more adaptive response to stress and might relate to the fact that women live longer than men.

If the stressor does not go away the effects of the stress can become chronic and result in a clinical condition known as Post-Traumatic Stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic anxiety. Both of these conditions seem to have a hormonal component underlying them in which an explosion of hormones are released in the body—“stress response” and if not turned off can potentially do damage to the body and brain. Some of the hormones such as cortisol and glucocorticoids can actually cause potential damage to the brain.

Animal and some human studies indicate that chronic stress with the persistent hormonal issue described above affects the hippocampus, structurally and functionally. The hippocampus is critical to memory and new learning and it is not coincidental that persons with chronic anxiety or PTSD have memory problems.

Most people understand that it is important to first identify what causes their stress and then to try and develop more adaptive coping strategies to manage the stress in their lives. However, most people probably do not understand that such stress, if not managed can become chronic and may be a negative influence on brain function.

It is a good idea to take some time and list two or three things that represent your chief stressors in life. Once you do this identify how you are presently coping or managing these stressors and try to determine how you might better reduce the negative effects of these stressors on your body and life.

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