Stress is our reaction to threatening events or stimuli. It happens every day and comes in a variety of forms. In small doses it can be beneficial, motivating you to get things done. Prolonged or continuous stress can have a negative cumulative effect on our physical and mental health. Prolonged and constant stress is called chronic stress. This is the kind of stress that has the ability to alter your brain and negatively impact both your physical and mental health. Here’s how it affects your brain and body.
Changes brain’s structure
Prolonged stress leads to changes in the balance between the white and grey matter in the brain leading to lasting changes in the brain’s structure. This imbalance in the white and grey matter in the brain is one of the brain abnormalities observed in people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Kills brain cells
Stress can kill brain cells. One study found that a single socially-stress event could kill neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain heavily associated with memory, learning, and emotion. It’s one of the areas where the formation of new brain cells occurs throughout life.
Even among healthy people, prolonged stress can lead to a shrinkage in the brain, particularly in the areas associated with memory, metabolism, and emotions. It can lead to a shrinkage in the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex which plays a role in self-control and emotions. This accumulation of stressful events then has the effect of making it even more challenging for individuals to deal with future stress.
Increase the size of your amygdala
The amygdala is a part of the brain that plays a crucial role in processing emotions. Prolonged stress can lead to an increase in the size of the amygdala which makes the brain always in a state of fight or flight. The brain is constantly primed to look for threats which means it feels like you’re constantly under attack which leads to feeling even more stressed out.
Compromise memory and attention
Stress triggers the release of a variety of hormones including cortisol. Prolonged stress leads to elevated cortisol levels which can damage the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical for long-term memory and learning. Studies show that people with higher levels of cortisol have poorer memory. High levels of cortisol can also damage the prefrontal cortex which is essential for focused attention and executive function. Executive function refers to cognitive processes that allow you to plan, organize, solve problems, engage in flexible thinking, and control your impulses.
Stress leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Prolonged stress over months and years can lead to high blood pressure. It can also lead to fat accumulation, insulin resistance, and greater systemic inflammation. Over time it can lead to the narrowing of blood vessels, and heightened blood clotting raising the risk of cardiac events.
Stress can lead to rapid respiration making you feel like you’re out of breath. Shallow, rapid breathing compromises the oxygen your body’s getting which can make you lightheaded and dizzy. Stress can trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
High levels of cortisol trigger inflammation which is linked to a variety of illnesses including cardiovascular diseases, dementia, and depression.
Stress slows down the emptying of the gut which can make you feel nauseated, bloated, or constipated. One study found a correlation between stress and the flare-ups of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Stress can also cause a leaky gut which can in tune cause anxiety and depression.
Stress can cause flare-ups of acne and eczema. When you experience prolonged stress, the skin’s immune system is compromised causing inflammation which worsens skin conditions including hives, psoriasis, and eczema. Stress interferes with the skin’s ability to hold water which triggers the sebaceous glands to produce oil which can cause acne breakouts. In a truly vicious cycle, stress causes breakouts which leads to more stress which exacerbates or prolongs the problem further.
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