December 2, 2020


Minute read

Is Stress Causing Your Brain To Shrink?!

Just relax! Take it easy. Take a chill pill. Go do a meditation practice. Take a deep breath.

How many times have you heard these phrases? Maybe you’ve said them yourself to someone who seemed to be “stressing out” a bit?

Unfortunately, we often use these all too familiar phrases without understanding the burden they create, and the possibility that they actually exacerbate the very stress we are attempting to ease.

On top of just feeling overwhelmed, chronic stress can manifest itself in several other ways. These manifestations can include things like restless sleep, feeling moody, feeling alone or unreal, forgetting things, or even chronic stomach pain or high blood pressure. 

But let me set things straight. Stress isn’t bad. 

Under the right circumstances, it can actually be quite helpful. It gives us an extra burst of energy and, in micro-doses, helps us focus on a specific task or situation, thanks to norepinephrine(noradrenaline), adrenaline, and BDNF that is released during times of stress. 

You’ve probably heard, however, that stress is harmful to your body, can compromise your immunity, and wreaks havoc on your adrenal glands and lymphatic system. So which is it?

The answer is both. Stress is a natural, physiological reaction that is vital to our survival. But when we are in a constant state of stress, bad things can happen. 

The key to understanding why this is so, and how to cope with it in our modern world requires that we examine stress’ impact on the stuff between our ears! Yes, I’m talking about your brain.

When we endure stress continuously, day-in and day-out in a chronic fashion, it physiologically changes our brain.

Whatever the source of your stress, it all begins the same on the inside. 

What Stress Does Between Our Ears

In essence, when our brain detects a stressful situation — let’s say a bear is chasing you, or your boss is asking you to stay and do work far beyond your pay grade, again, without any extra thanks – your HPA axis is activated. It acts like a light switch, releasing cortisol and getting your body ready for however it might need to respond. It triggers what you might know as our fight-flight or freeze response. 

That’s helpful if you’re being chased by that bear and everything is over quickly, but that’s not the reality for most of us. Instead, modern stressors persist over much longer periods of time. And, over time, with these persistently stressful situations, the high levels of cortisol our bodies are consistently releasing wreaks havoc on your brain.

Why is this? This heightened activation of the HPA axis increases the number of connections and the activity level in the amygdala, affectionately known as the fear center of our brain. 

And, as cortisol levels increase, signals in the hippocampus, the part of our brain associated with memory, learning new things, and stress management begin to deteriorate. 

This is bad because the hippocampus is important for reasons beyond remembering the lyrics to your favorite songs. It inhibits activity of the HPA axis, so when it weakens and deteriorates, it can’t say no to HPA activity. Over time, this means that it becomes much harder to control stress and essentially creates a vicious circle in which chronic stress makes you ever more susceptible to stress.

Ugh. Not great.

And I’ve got some bad news for you. If chronic stress continues, the situation gets even worse. 

As that cortisol releases, it not only reduces signals in the hippocampus, it literally causes your brain to shrink. This shrinking means that as stress levels increase, your brain produces fewer cells in the hippocampus.

Double ugh.

This shrinkage leads to a reduction in communication between synapses and neurons, and inhibits the proper function of your prefrontal cortex. That ugly reaction results in poorer concentration, judgment, and impulse control, and heightens your emotional reactivity.

So, let me summarize this vicious circle for you. Chronic stress increases cortisol, which inhibits hippocampus signaling, which makes us more susceptible to stress. As stress continues, our brain starts to shrink, causing our prefrontal cortex to suffer and that leads to poor executive decisions. Stressed out yet?

All of this explains why it’s SO hard to learn and remember things when we’re stressed. And there’s even some indications that this chronic stress can lead to things like Alzheimers. 

I hope this behind the scenes peek into what’s going on inside your brain when you’re “stressed” has helped you understand why it can be so damaging. But the big question is, what can you do about it?

The Juicy Secret

Well, I assume that you need to work, so quitting that job that may be driving you ballistic is probably not an option. Likewise, you’re not going to instantly fix a chronically challenged relationship that may be stress-inducing, but that doesn’t mean there’s no hope.

Many of the foundational practices that are part of the MAPS philosophy can help you reverse the ramifications of chronic stress. These practices include things like: Movement, Breath Practice, Meditation, a qualitarian diet, a purpose-centric routine, and Sound therapy. And, as an added bonus, they help in a lot of ways beyond stress management too!

So, in a world that seems to be chronically inducing stress, you need to do everything you can to reverse the situation. By adopting these practices, you can actually increase hippocampus matter (thanks to brain plasticity) improving your memory and cognitive function. Plus, life is just better when you’re not so stressed. 

So, just take a chill pill and relax, won’t you?

About the Author: Laura Araujo

Passionate about accessible education and evidence-based wellness, Laura founded The MAPS Institute, an educational wellness editorial and platform. Aside from her passion for research and educating, Laura is a classically trained vocalist, sound therapist, and a practitioner and teacher of Ashtanga and Restorative Yoga. She is the creator of the MAPS (Mindfulness, Activation, Purpose, and Surrender) philosophy and is in continual pursuit of helping her students and herself find balance amid the chaos around and within them. When not sifting through Nature Magazine, complaining about their paywalls, she enjoys trying new wine varietals, experimenting in the kitchen, riding her bicycle (sometimes cross-country), and spending time with her husband Charlie, cockapoo Miles, and expected baby girl, Ella.  Click here to follow the MAPS Institute on social media.



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