How stress affects your brain

Have you heard people saying that they’re stressed out? Has it confused you?

Symptoms like forgetting things, irritability, constant mood swings, a disturbed sleep pattern are actually a means to figure out if someone around you has been stressed out lately. These changes may seem insignificant initially, however, it’s crucial to identify them in the earlier stages to protect yourself from major health issues like Depression or Alzheimers.

Why is stress bad for our brains?

If stress isn’t tended to early on, its prolonged effects put a lot of pressure on our brains and ultimately impact their functioning.

Chronic stress is the kind that constantly pressures the brain. It may be a result of being overworked or having to deal with endless arguments. As time progresses, it starts altering the brain size and its structure, while also impacting your genes.

Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis or HPA, as the name suggests, involves the interaction between three parts of our body- The hypothalamus, the pituitary gland (located below the hypothalamus) and the adrenal glands (locate don top of each kidney). HPA can be seen as a measure of the stress handles by our body.

The HPA axis gets activated on being subjected to stressful conditions. As a result, it releases a hormone called Cortisol which demands the body to engage in the instant action.

With increasing stress levels, the number of neural connections in the amygdala, a structure within the brain that responds to emotions like fear and anger. On the other hand, the increasing levels of cortisol impact the hippocampus, the structure responsible for retaining information as long-term memory. The deterioration so caused debilitate the hippocampus’ means of controlling stress.

This combined effect can cause the brain to shrink in size in addition to the loss of synaptic connections between neurons. This finally shrinks the prefrontal cortex of the brain as well (the structure responsible for decision making, concentration and so on).

What are Epigenetic changes?

These changes are the result of external factors, one of them being stress.

For example, a person experiencing constant stress, who may also be devoid of any kind of nurturing can be affected to such an extent that they end up becoming highly sensitive to stress throughout the course of their life.

Therefore, epigenetic changes alter one’s expression and gene activity without changing one’s genetic code or DNA sequence. These changes are not always permanent but they have been found to be inheritable.

How can we counter the effects of cortisol?

Activities that make you focus on your breathing patterns and your surroundings, like exercise and meditation help reduce stress levels by increasing the size of your hippocampus, which in turn impacts your memory positively.

Stress can seem like an unbeatable nemesis but there are ways to fight it and improve your health conditions. However, in order to achieve that, you have to first recognize the first sightings of symptoms associated with stress. You can definitely beat it and have your life back.

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