3 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain

Camille Freking, MS Translational Pharmacology and Clinical Research
3 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain

Stress is a word that's so powerful that simply reading it can be enough to increase your blood pressure. Take a deep breath — stress comes up a lot, but learning more about the effects of stress might help you embrace ways to manage it.


Is Stress Bad for You?

The short answer to this question is yes. Stress is directly linked to the six leading causes of death. Heart disease, cancer, respiratory disorders, accidental injuries, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide are all closely associated with severe or chronic stress. 

Perhaps the most devastating thing about stress is that it can be challenging to prevent. No one is immune to experiencing stress in life. In most cases, economic anxiety, issues with work, health concerns, and relationship troubles are the primary “stressors” in one’s life

A recent study included a poll in which 27 percent of respondents said they were too stressed on most days to function. Nearly half (46 percent) of the participants under 35 agreed with that statement. 

Part of what makes stress difficult to confront is that you may not know that you experience it. Stress-induced symptoms can manifest in many ways that aren’t always easy to identify. For example, stress can negatively affect your gut health and contribute to various gastrointestinal issues. 


What’s the Purpose of Stress?

The section above certainly contains alarming information about stress. However, from an evolutionary standpoint, stress has been extremely important for helping humans to survive

Ironically, the primary purpose of stress is to protect you from danger. It’s responsible for the “fight or flight” response that helps you properly navigate potentially dangerous situations. This response has helped us survive for countless generations and become the dominant species on the planet. 

The thing about stress is that there are essentially two different types:

  • Eustress is the name for stress that provides positive benefits. These episodes are typically short-lived and aim to keep you alive. It’s eustress that helps you to run when a house is on fire or punch the nose of a shark when it’s attacking you.

  • Distress is the name for stress that’s primarily harmful and comes in two forms: acute and chronic. 

Acute distress is the term for when you experience a particularly traumatic event. Losing your job, ending a relationship, or grieving the death of a loved one usually triggers acute distress. 

These episodes can result in extreme levels of stress for a time. Proper management and the passage of time can usually alleviate the severity of acute stress. In extreme cases, it might manifest as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be difficult to manage without help. 

Chronic distress is the other type of unhealthy stress typically resulting from intensely negative life experiences. This type of stress is the “silent killer,” as it causes elevated stress levels over a longer period. It’s also much more difficult to manage, as a single incident generally doesn’t cause it, but often a series of events that must be dealt with over a longer period of time. 


How Does the Brain Respond to Stressful Situations?

Neuroscience has discovered much information about the relationship between the brain and stress. For example, we now know that stress is a completely involuntary experience. You can’t activate it on-command or willingly turn it off. 

Stress is a bodily function that operates similarly to your immune system. The subconscious parts of the brain have complete control over how you respond to stress. To be more specific, it’s a bodily function that the amygdala controls. 

The amygdala is a part of your brain that processes stimuli perceived as threatening. The amygdala can make your heart rate skyrocket, your skin develop goosebumps, and your spine tingle. 

Things in your environment that may make you feel threatened, stressed, or afraid are received by your prefrontal cortex, which causes your amygdala to believe a threat is near. When that happens, your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland to release a hormone that causes your adrenal glands to increase the production of cortisol.

Cortisol is the primary stress hormone of your body and has a significant effect on how it functions. It’s easiest to think of cortisol as an “alarm bell” that travels throughout your body. 

Not only does cortisol influence all areas of the brain and nervous system, but it also affects everything from your major organs to the tiniest cells. When cortisol is present in these areas, it’s saying that you are in mortal danger and they need to prepare accordingly. This can affect your general decision-making and problem-solving.

Strength, stamina, and focus can be boosted past Olympic levels when enough cortisol is in your blood. It’s often the primary reason for unbelievable feats that people can achieve in life-threatening situations.

The problem is when cortisol is constantly being released to combat stressful situations that are lasting and prolonged. It’s extremely beneficial when a rabid animal charges you, but not so much when you’re concerned about an upcoming test weeks in advance of the actual test. 

Having an amygdala that’s easily triggered is less of a lifesaver and more of a boy who constantly cries wolf. During these times, stress has the most negative effects on your brain.


How Does Stress Affect the Brain? 

Very few things in life can negatively affect your brain as significantly as stress. Remember that the cortisol released during a stress response signals to your brain that immediate harm is a very likely outcome. You can imagine how that message can affect your mental and emotional health. But it can also have a profound impact on your physical health. 

These are three different ways that stress affects your brain: 


1. Memory Impairment

Everyone has woken up late for school or work at some point — you’re scrambling, trying to rush out the door, panicked about the consequences of not being on time. It’s during these times that your memory can become untrustworthy. 

The reason this happens is your brain has entered survival mode. It thinks that the stress it’s experiencing by waking up late is akin to a life-or-death situation. As a result, all non-essential bodily functions are significantly reduced. 

If it is not something that will keep you alive, then it won’t get its usual resources. Often, memory is one of the first non-essential brain functions to get shut down.

Stress is often cited as a reason for eyewitness testimony to be dismissed during trials. Even though you were there in person, your memory is likely to be tremendously altered by witnessing a stressful event. The brain is less interested in recording useful information and more interested in helping you survive it. 


2. Altered Structure

Brains are composed of two types of matter: gray and white. The gray matter is responsible for your thinking. You’re using your gray matter whenever you make a decision or solve a problem. 

The white matter connects different brain regions and helps them communicate with one another. White matter is surrounded by a protective sheath called myelin. Myelin gives white matter its signature color

The presence of stress and cortisol heavily encourages the brain to increase its myelin production. The protective qualities of myelin would be more helpful to the brain's survival, so it’s prioritized. 

The problem is that there is only so much room in your skull. The increased production of myelin will naturally require a decrease in the production of gray matter, leading to an alteration in the brain’s structure. 

In terms of short-term stress, these brain changes won’t have much of a long-lasting impact. The balance is restored after the cortisol levels return to their normal levels. 

However, for people with chronic stress (constantly elevated levels of cortisol), these changes in overall brain plasticity can be permanent. The “shrinkage” of gray matter in your brain won’t just permanently impair your memory; it can have a dangerous effect on your emotions and mobility.


3. Mental Illness

Reduced gray matter in your brain can hinder the ability to regulate emotions. The inability to properly regulate emotions often results in higher emotional sensitivity, reactivity, and instability. 

In the world of psychiatry, each of these attributes are closely associated with various mood disorders and mental illness. The hippocampus is one of two places (along with the lateral ventricles) capable of neurogenesis. 

In other words, it’s where the brain produces brain cells called neurons. Not only does stress appear to impact the overall amount of neurons produced by the hippocampus, but it also appears to dramatically affect their quality. Both the lifespan and function of a neuron created by a brain experiencing stress are often severely limited compared to those in a healthy brain. 

It’s widely believed that mental illness can be traced to issues with neural communication within the brain. A hippocampus that produces neurons that die faster and fail to communicate effectively could eventually contribute to the development of one or more mental illnesses. 

Depression, for example, can largely be the result of a deficit of serotonin within the brain. 

Mental illness often results in devastating ripple effects. Increased feelings of unhappiness and frustration often create conflicts with family, relationships, and work. These issues often result in more stress, contributing to substance abuse, legal problems, and financial issues. 


Control Your Stress Before It Controls You

It should be abundantly clear by now that the effects of chronic stress are one of the worst things that can happen to your brain. In small doses, stress can be helpful as it can provide a beneficial boost to cognitive function. 

The increased brain function can help you avoid a dire situation. However, a brain constantly experiencing stress is likely to develop some or all of the health problems listed above. 

Getting a grip on your stress levels is much easier said than done. Everyone has problems, and not all of them have simple solutions. 

Talking with a therapist can be an effective way to handle your general life stress. These mental health experts can recommend various techniques that you can use to try to cope with the stress in your life. 

Dietary changes have also been shown to help improve how your brain responds to stress. Exercise can help provide a similar boost. In some cases, medication is the best answer for stress management. 

If you’re having trouble managing your stress, speak with your primary care provider for additional guidance on how to give yourself the care you need to thrive, physically and mentally. 



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The Adult Brain Does Grow New Neurons After All, Study Says | Scientific American

Gray Matter Reduction Associated With Emotion Regulation in Female Outpatients With Major Depressive Disorder: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study | NCBI Bookshelf

Stress and Brain Atrophy | PMC

New Evidence That Chronic Stress Predisposes Brain to Mental Illness | Berkeley News

White Matter of the Brain | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

The Cerebellum and White and Gray Matter |

The Effects of Stress on Eyewitness Memory: A Survey of Memory Experts and Laypeople | PMC

Memory Impairments Associated with Stress and Aging | NCBI Bookshelf

7 Amazing Superhuman Feats | Live Science

Cortisol | NCBI Bookshelf

Facing the Role of the Amygdala in Emotional Information Processing | PNAS

Eustress and Distress: Neither Good Nor Bad, but Rather the Same? | NCBI Bookshelf

What Happens to Your Body During the Fight or Flight Response? | Cleveland Clinic

Why Is Stress So Deadly? An Evolutionary Perspective | PMC

Stress in America 2022: Concerned for the Future, Beset by Inflation | APA

Stressed in America | APA

Life Event, Stress and Illness | PMC

Tips for Coping with Stress | CDC

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