How stress affects the brain

How stress affects the brain

Chronic stress not only negatively affects the size and structure of the brain but also negatively affects heredity.

Short-term stress is useful. It mobilizes the brain, helps you quickly focus on the task, show the best result in competitions, and win over the audience when speaking in public. But when stress becomes chronic, there is no positive effect to speak of.

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Stress reduces the brain

Stress originates in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system. In a stressful situation, the adrenal cortex secretes cortisol — a catabolic hormone that keeps a person active so that they can cope with difficulties. But its prolonged exposure is bad for the brain.

The main impact is taken by the hippocampus, where there are many cortisol receptors. In normal situations, they help to normalize the production of the hormone. If the cortisol level remains high for a long time, some of the receptors die. This can lead to memory disorders and learning problems. At the same time, the amygdala becomes more sensitive, and this makes the person nervous and restless.

Another consequence is a decrease in the ability of the hormonal system to control stress levels. But this is not all.

Because of the increased cortisol content, the brain shrinks in size.

Exposure to the hormone destroys synaptic connections between neurons and changes the size of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for concentration, decision-making, and social interaction.

Therefore, chronic stress does not just impair memory and concentration, it can lead to depression and dementia.

Stress affects genetics

Experiments show that chronic stress can affect the expression of certain genes. This conclusion was made by scientists based on the results of an experiment on rats.

How a mother cares for her offspring determines how children will later respond to stress. A caring and attentive parent grows a child-resistant to stressful situations. He has more cortisol receptors in his brain, which regulate the response to negative effects. The children of mothers who did not care, more susceptible to stress due to the smaller number of receptors.

Such changes are called epigenetic since they do not affect the sequence of the DNA itself. But they are inherited, and the stress response received by the offspring of one mother will spread over several generations.

You need to deal with stress

To prevent irreversible changes in the brain, you need to fight stress and reduce cortisol levels. The simplest methods are deep breathing and meditation. Physical activity also helps, but it is important to know the measure: excessive sports can increase cortisol levels.