The Effects of Stress on the Brain

By Dorothy Foltz-Gray. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Life traumas, such as divorce, family death or the loss of a job, can affect your spirits, outlook and social interactions. Add to that the day-to-day anxieties many of us experience, and you may start to feel like everything is falling apart.

These kinds of stressors don’t just affect your emotional and physical health; they also affect the makeup of your brain. A 2013 Yale University study examined 103 healthy people (ages 18 to 48) who had experienced major life stressors within the previous 12 months. Researchers assessed these dreadful events and measured brain volume using MRI scans. They discovered that major stresses, such as a bad breakup or death of a loved one — when combined with ordinary anxieties like balancing a heavy workload or worrying about finances — may physiologically shrink the “gray matter” parts of the brain, which affect emotion, self-control and heart rate.

“Traumatic events over a lifetime, plus recent nerve-wracking events, do affect your gray matter size,” says Emily Ansell, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

And when the volume of gray matter in the brain shrinks, that can make us more vulnerable to future stresses, as well as depression, anxiety, addictive behaviors and chronic disease.

“[With a decreased gray matter volume], you are also going to have a more difficult time dealing with the next big stressful event,” says Ansell. “It will be harder to maintain self-control, to deal with your emotions and to manage your physiological responses.”

According to Ansell, other studies have shown that people with depression have less gray matter volume in the same regions of the brain than people without depression. “These brain changes may happen before you are depressed and may contribute to your [overall] vulnerability for depression,” she says.

However, it’s the combination of major life stresses, plus daily hassles, that directly leads to brain shrinkage, says Ansell. 

So, what can you do about it, especially if you’re already depressed?

Thankfully, our brains are quite malleable, says Ansell. “They are constantly responding to experiences good and bad. Since gray matter volume is not static, we can definitely take steps to reverse the effects of compounded stress on our brains.”

Take the Next Steps

One way to prevent the loss of gray matter volume or reverse the effects of shrunken gray matter is to address the triggers that cause stress in the first place. Here are ways to decrease daily tensions and keep your brain in tiptop shape:

  • Be mindful. Check in with yourself, and be aware of how anxious you feel driving in a traffic jam, worrying about an impending deadline, feeling financially strapped or any other stress triggers. Is your heart racing? Are you taking shallow, quick breaths? “Just focusing on what emotions you’re experiencing and stepping back from those can be calming,” Ansel says.
  • Keep moving. While dealing with life’s stresses, you can easily forget to exercise, but doing so may actually make you more vulnerable to stress. In a 2013 study at the University of Maryland, researchers assessed the anxiety levels in a group of healthy young adults. Some were asked to exercise for 30 minutes, while others were asked to quietly rest for 30 minutes. Researchers found that those who exercised maintained lower anxiety levels for a longer period of time, compared to those who simply rested. What’s the takeaway? Exercise can help you better cope with stress, so if you’re not moving, now’s a good time to start, and put a reminder on an electronic calendar if you need to.
  • Eat well. “Don’t skip meals and yet don’t overindulge,” says Ansell. Overeating can be the result of accumulated stressors, and moderation is key when it comes to depressants like alcohol.
  • Unplug. Electronic usage, including cell phones, emails and texting, makes it more difficult to relieve anxieties both big and small. “Technological interference diverts your attention and makes it difficult to live in the moment,” says Ansell. “Try pushing technology aside for a little while so you can experience the natural joys [being unplugged].”

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