How Stress Affects Your Brain

WRITTEN BY: Neurosurgery
Friday, September 19th, 2014

For most people, stress is an everyday occurrence. Dealing with finances, hectic work schedules, childcare, and countless other responsibilities can make you feel like your life is spiraling out of control. Yet, some people can handle it well and find ways to manage, while for others, stress begins to take its toll. And not just physically, but where you’d least expect it – your brain. The following information will help you gain a better understanding for how stress affects your brain and ways to improve how you deal with stress in the future.

Destroying Brain Cells

When you’re under stress, your body releases adrenalin into your bloodstream, giving your brain bursts of energy. When under longer periods of it, your body goes all out and releases a class of stronger steroidal hormones, called glucocorticoids, which can remain in your brain far longer than adrenalin. Now, this is all well and good and can help you get by in tough situations, but when under constant, chronic stress, these hormones can begin to have lasting effects. None of which are positive.

When these hormones are released, they head directly for the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is involved in memory forming, organizing, and storing. When chronic stress occurs, these hormones become unbalanced, which can kill cells in the hippocampus, and over time can lead to confusion and memory and learning difficulties.

Shrinking Your Brain

Yes your brain can actually shrink from having too much stress in your life. A recent study from Yale University showed that chronic stress can reduce brain volume, leading to impaired cognition and hampered emotional function. Why does this happen, you might ask? The genes that control synaptic connections (the connections between nerve cells) malfunction, causing fewer connections and lower brain volume. However, the good news is that this change is not permanent. When your stress passes and synaptic connections levels return to normal, your brain rebounds to its normal size.

Brain Chemical Depletion

Under a state of chronic stress, the chemicals that carry messages from one nerve to another begin to deplete, causing the brain to become sluggish and inefficient. This can cause an array of health effects, including:

  • Depression
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions
  • Absent-mindedness
  • Sleep disorders
  • Obsessive or compulsive behaviors
  • Increased hostility, worry, or guilt

Save your Brain – Simple Ways to De-stress

While stress is bound to happen at some point during your life, there are many ways to help alleviate it, including:

  • Being physically active at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week
  • Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
  • Drinking enough water
  • Performing deep breathing exercises
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Getting proper sleep (6 to 8 hours per night)
Stress raises your heart rate and blood pressure, so try breathing exercises or yoga. #destress Click To Tweet

Although it may not be the biggest organ in our body, the brain is certainly the most important. It plays the center role in our daily thoughts and activities. Preserving it is crucial to living a happy and fulfilling life. Stress can often be quite difficult to manage, but by keeping some of the aforementioned practices in mind, you have the ability to overcome some of the more common stresses that you encounter. Do you have any tips or personal preferences for alleviating stress in your life? If so, we would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!



UPMC is ranked among the top hospitals in the nation for neurosurgical care by U.S. News & World Report. In addition, UPMC is one of the few medical centers in the U.S. – and throughout the world – with expertise in the full array of surgical options for brain and spine conditions. Our world-renowned experts are committed to finding the best treatment approach for each patient, maximizing the benefits of surgery while minimizing the risks. Read More