How Chronic Stress Damages The Brain

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Stress is an all-too-familiar component of modern life. Stress manifests itself in a multitude of ways daily. It could be the strain of juggling family, career, and school obligations. It could be about your health, your finances, or your relationships.

As humanss when we are confronted with a possible threat, our brains and body mobilize to either deal with the problem (fight) or escape it (avoidance) (flight).

You’ve probably heard about the adverse effects of stress on the mind and body. Physical symptoms of stress can include headaches, chest pain ertc… It can cause worry or depression, among other things. It can even cause behavioral issues like rage outbursts or overeating.

What you may not understand is that stress has a significant impact on your brain.

1 When your brain is under stress, it goes through a sequence of beneficial and poor reactions to mobilize and protect itself from potential threats. Pressure can sometimes assist the mind to sharpen and improve the ability to remember specifics about what is going on.

Stress harms both the body and the mind. Pressure has been discovered to have a wide range of harmful consequences on the brain, ranging from contributing to mental disease to reducing the brain’s volume. 2

Let’s take a look intofive of the most surprising effects of stress on the brain.

1 Mental Illness Is Linked to Chronic Stress
Woman under duress
Getty Images/Jamie Grill

Chronic stress causes long-term alterations in the brain, according to a study published in Molecular Psychiatry.

3 These alterations, scientists believe, may explain why people who are exposed to chronic stress are more likely we are to develop mood and anxiety disorders later in life.

Stress could play a role in the development of mental illnesses like depression and emotional disorders.

A team of researchers conducted an array of tests to determine the effects of persistent stress on the brain. They observed that under pressure, they produce more myelin-producing cells but fewer neurons than usual.

An overabundance of myelin builds up in some areas of the brain due to this disruption, interfering with transmission timing and balance. The researchers discovered that stress had a deleterious impact on the hippocampus of the brain. 3

If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, call the National Helpline of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357 for information about local support and treatment options.

See our National Helpline Database for more mental health resources.

Stress: 10 Things You Didn’t Know

2 Stress Alters the Structure of the Brain
The structure of the brain
Getty Images / Arian Camilleri / Radius Images

According to the findings of these studies, chronic stress can cause long-term changes in the structure and function of the brain.

The grey matter in the brain, which is responsible for higher-order thinking such as decision-making and problem-solving, is made up of neurons and support cells.

5 However, the brain also contains “white matter,” which comprises all the axons that communicate information with other parts of the brain.

The fatty, white layer known as myelin surrounding the axons that speed up the electrical signals needed to transfer information throughout the brain gives white matter its name.

The overproduction of myelin found by the researchers in the presence of chronic stress doesn’t simply cause a short-term shift in the balance between white and grey matter; it can also cause long-term structural abnormalities in the brain.

Doctors and researchers have previously discovered that persons with post-traumatic stress disorder have brain abnormalities, such as grey and white matter imbalances.


The researcher behind these trials, Psychologist Daniela Kaufer, believes that not all stress affects the brain and neural networks.

3 Good stress, or the kind that helps you perform well when confronted with a difficulty, helps to rewire the brain in a good way, resulting in more robust networks and more resilience.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, can cause a wide range of issues. “Based on the patterning of white matter you get early in life, you’re constructing a brain that’s either resilient or very sensitive to mental disorder,” Kaufer noted in a news release. 7

3 Stress Causes Brain Cell Death
The network of neurons in the brain
Getty Images / Alfred Pasieka / Science Photo Library

Researchers at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science showed that a single socially stressful event might kill newborn neurons in the brain’s hippocampus.


The hippocampus is a brain area that is strongly linked to memory, emotion, and learning. It’s also one of two areas of the brain where neurogenesis, or the development of new brain cells, happens all the time.

The researchers experimented by putting young rats in a cage with two adult rats for 20 minutes. The baby rat was subsequently subjected to aggressiveness from the cage’s more experienced inmates. The cortisol levels of the young rats were found to be up to six times greater than those of rats who had not undergone a stressful social encounter.

Further investigation found that, whereas young rats exposed to stress created the same number of new neurons as those who had not been exposed to stress, the number of nerve cells was significantly reduced a week later.

Stress does not appear to affect the production of new neurons, but it affects those cells’ survival.


So, while stress has the potential to damage brain cells, is there anything that can be done to reduce the adverse effects of stress?

“The next step is to figure out how stress affected survival,” lead author Daniel Peterson, Ph.D., said. “We want to see if antidepressants can help these susceptible nascent neurons survive. 9”

The Science Behind the Generation of New Brain Cells

4 Stress Shrinks the Brain shrinks as a result of stress.
Getty Images/

Stress can cause shrinkage in parts of the brain related to emotion regulation, metabolism, and memory, even in otherwise healthy people.

While many people associate adverse outcomes with sudden, intense stress caused by life-altering events (such as a natural disaster, car accident, or the death of a loved one), researchers believe that everyday stress, which we all seem to face, can contribute to a variety of mental disorders over time.

Researchers from Yale University looked at 100 healthy people who shared information on stressful experiences in their life in one study. The researchers discovered that stress, even recent stress, resulting in more minor grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region associated with self-control and emotions. 2

Chronic, everyday stress seems to have little effect on brain volume on its own, but it appears to render people more sensitive to brain shrinkage when faced with extreme, catastrophic stresses.

“The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more difficult for these individuals to deal with future stress,” said Emily Ansell, the study’s lead author. “Especially if the next demanding event requires effortful control, emotion regulation, or integrated social processing to overcome it.”


Distinct types of stress have different effects on the brain. Emotional awareness is affected by recent stressful experiences (job loss, automobile accidents). Mood centers are more affected by traumatic experiences (death of a loved one, significant sickness).

5 Ways Stress Affects Your Memory
E+ / Getty Images / Debbi Smirnoff

If you’ve ever tried to recall the details of a stressful incident, you’re surely aware that stress can make it harder to remember details. Even modest pressure can have an instant effect on your memory, such as forgetting where you put your car keys or where you put your briefcase when you’re late for work.

According to one study, chronic stress has been found to have a poor influence on spatial memory, or the ability to retain information about the placement of items in the environment as well as spatial orientation.

11 High levels of the stress hormone cortisol were linked to short-term memory deficits in older rats in a 2014 study. 12

The overall effect of stress on memory is dependent on several factors, one of which is timing. According to research, when stress happens right before learning, memory can be improved by aiding in memory consolidation. 13

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