Affects of stress on the brain

Effects of Stress on the Brain

We know how the effects of stress on the brain can impact us emotionally, psychologically, and physiologically.

When you’re experiencing heart problems or have high blood pressure, your doctor may ask you to practice stress reduction exercises. Slow down and practice deep breathing for feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

We know stress affects us because we can feel it. 

But, how many of us know about its specific and long-term effects on the brain? And what can learning about the impact of stress on the brain teach us about the impacts it will have on our personal and professional lives?

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as “the brain’s response to any demand.” It affects everyone, it isn’t all bad, it can escalate and have long-term effects if ignored, and there are very simple ways to manage and reduce stress and protect your brain.

During a stress response, the hypothalamus sends signals to the pituitary gland and the adrenal medulla. In short-term stress, the “fight or flight response” is triggered via the Sympathomedullary Pathway (SAM). During a longer-term stress response, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system comes into play.

To break it down as simply as possible:


To break it down simply

  • The Hypothalamic Pituitary Axis is activated
  • The hypothalamus, which is toward the center of the brain, stimulates the pituitary gland which secretes adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). The purpose of this hormone is to regulate levels of the steroid hormone cortisol. (Cortisol is where problems really present themselves when there are high doses of it in your body too often)
  • In a healthy stress response this release of cortisol (corticosteroid), helps your body maintain steady supplies of blood sugar. This is meant to assist the body in coping with the stress. Therefore your system can eventually return to normal
  • The hypothalamus also activates the adrenal medulla which is part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and acts as your body’s control system without you having to really think about it.
  • When the adrenal medulla is activated, that’s when the adrenaline is secreted. That’s the light-headed feeling and burst of energy many people report! That energy is meant to help you with “fighting” or “running” (flight).
  • The adrenaline stimulates your sympathetic nervous system (stress response) and suppresses activity in the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation). This means your digestion slows down, your blood pressure and heart rate go up, and your immune system is affected as well because your body is focused on fighting.
  • You are then supposed to “come down” from the stress and go back into parasympathetic nervous system dominance. The problem is, most of us stay pretty stressed a great deal of the time.

We can see how stress starts in the brain and the brain instructs the body on how to handle the “threat.” The brain is simply trying to protect you and your body from harm! It’s doing its job.

The problem is the part of the brain that is “activated” during stress is what’s known as the “reptilian brain,” or where our instinctive responses come from. This primal part of your brain takes charge of your basic needs: eating, fighting/surviving, fleeing, and reproduction. It doesn’t do a lot of “thinking” in the sense of putting together ideas and concepts. It’s also not great at discerning real threats from ones that are daily stressors. It turns on the stress response regardless.

It’s very common for people to do things under stress that they regularly regret. People often report “going numb,” or “seeing red.” Their discernment is turned down and their immediate reflexes take over. This is what happens when we take action from a stressed brain. And it makes sense considering where the stress response comes from. However, it is preventable.

But, let’s first look at the physiological impact of chronic effects of stress on the brain. 

There is evidence that the persistent effects of stress can rewire your brain. If you’re stressed the majority of the time, you’re overusing that primal part of your brain and underusing your prefrontal cortex. This is where you form ideas, express your thoughts, plan, and choose your social behavior. Think about it this way, if you only work out your arms but never focus on your lower body, you will probably end up with stronger, more developed muscles in your upper body, but weaker and maybe even atrophied muscles in your lower body. Even if your arms are stronger, your body is a whole unit, and overdeveloping one part of your body can have a negative impact on alignment which also affects internal organs and your overall health.

Just as we focus on the whole body for optimal health, we have to focus on the whole brain. 

How the brain works

We know that stress from different kinds of trauma can actually change your brain and affect its development. It can cause lasting impacts on the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. What more studies are interested in finding out is what we can reverse and prevent by becoming more aware and taking action to reduce stress before it escalates.

Unchecked, this effect of stress on the brain can have more than a physiological effect. It will impact your mood, your habits, your productivity, your self-belief, and your personal and professional relationships.

As mentioned, when under stress, we aren’t exactly thinking “clearly.”

Because of the impact on the body, it can also cause us to want to cope and self-soothe. Depending on your personality, this can mean turning to stress or emotional eating for comfort, feeling apathetic when it comes to getting work done or moving your body, experiencing extreme drops in mood that also affect your self-esteem, and changes in behavior and increased irritability that will show up in your communication style with others.

The good news is that the effects of stress on the brain does not need to be permanent. By being aware of your own mental health, you can learn how to identify your stressors and manage their impact on your life.

What can you do?

Accept that there are consequences if things don’t change.

We humans, have a tendency to ignore things we can’t see, think, hear, or feel and can also behave as though we are invincible. There is a thing called optimism bias which causes us to think that we are less likely to go through the same negative events as others. It’s that feeling of “that will never happen to me.” It can explain why we sometimes act in self-destructive ways because the long-term consequences seem too far away to accept as being possible for us.

So you might ignore the stress or tell yourself it will get better, that you just have to push a little longer. You might even take pride in your resilience! If you can teach your brain to really internalize that there are serious consequences to letting stress go unchecked, you’re more likely to take action now.

  1. Slow down when it comes to doing most things.

    Rushing and moving unnecessarily fast is like food for stress. It feeds into that anxiety and only causes it to build. What’s the antidote? Slowing down. Slow down more in the morning, slow down your breathing, slow down when you eat, slow down in the shower, just try slowness when you can. It has been shown to help the body immediately. It will shift from sympathetic nervous system dominance to parasympathetic nervous system dominance.

  2. Eat well and move your body.

    This doesn’t mean going on an extreme diet that could stress your body out even more. It doesn’t mean finding ways to introduce nutrient-dense foods into what you eat and enjoy. This can be as simple as more fruits and vegetables and home-cooked meals. Thankfully the Internet has millions of resources on recipes and meal plan ideas. Look for whole food, low sugar websites when you do a search.

  3. Value rest and sleep and drink more water.

    These may sound so basic and they are so potent when it comes to ridding your system of unnecessary stress. Your brain especially needs that sleep and rest time to really recover from the day. Lack of sleep will affect brain development in kids and can have a drastic impact on mood and productivity in adults. And water is just essential. Have you ever noticed how grumpy you feel when dehydrated? Well, mild dehydration has been found to trigger moodiness and fatigue! So drink up, it might be a great surprise.

And finally, value yourself. Stress affects your health but also directs your quality of life. What kind of life would you prefer to live in? What’s it going to take to begin?

At Nourishment Vitality we offer a “Shame-Free “non-judgmental space to deal with the stressors that we face every day including stress relief, fatigue, anxiety, weight management, and more