How Stress Is Affecting Your Brain (and you may not even know it)

We often underestimate how much stress affects us, especially in the way we think. Symptoms such as not being able to think straight, poor concentration, lack of focus and struggling to make decisions, are quite common. And, for some, this can be crippling, badly affecting their day-to-day functioning.

If you don’t understand the signs and symptoms of uncontrolled stress, feeling like this can be very disturbing and I’ve even heard people say they’re afraid they’re going mad or suffering early dementia.

What’s happening in our brains when we are stressed?

Research shows that even everyday stress can change our brain in ways that make us more susceptible to depression and cause problems with rational thinking.

Dr Rajita Sinha, a Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine, reported in the Journal of Biological Psychiatry that adverse life events causing stress can actually shrink parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. It seems that it’s not the individual traumatic events but the effect of a lifetime’s worth of stress that have the most impact on our brains.

She scanned 100 healthy participants who had experienced traumatic and stressful events in their lives, including such things such as divorce or the loss of a job. Stressed people had smaller grey matter in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain, the area that’s responsible for self-control, learning, planning, prioritising and emotions.

How stress can make you an overweight, risk-taking alcoholic

Repeated exposure to stressful events affects our ability to resist potentially dangerous desires, such as overeating, alcohol or other substances or to control our impulses to do dangerous things.

Sinha says ‘the prefrontal cortex is important for metabolic homeostasis and for our survival and adaption to life’s challenges’.

By looking at the brain scans, Sinha was able to distinguish how different types of stress affects different regions of the brain. Recent traumatic events, such as an accident or a job loss, seem to predominantly affect emotional awareness. Shrinkage in this part of the brain means we can lose touch with our emotions, our empathy and act in insensitive ways to situations and other people.

Living with chronic conditions such as cancer or losing a loved one seems to affect our mood centres and has been linked to depression and other mood disorders such as anxiety.

Finally, chronic stress, the day-to-day grind of meeting targets, managing our work-life balance and worrying doesn’t seem to affect the brain as such. But Sinha believes that it puts us more at risk of suffering from brain changes in key areas when we are faced with a sudden stressful event. This may be because the chronic stress erodes parts of the brain gradually, just enough so it is not really noticeable but enough so that when we encounter a stressful event it is magnified and we can no longer cope.  If you like, our ‘baseline’ is heightened and we are more sensitive to stressors.

Over time, as the number of cumulative stressors increases, chronic stress can interact with that and worsen the effect’ says Sinha.

Why do we need to know this?

Well, if you understand that stress can have a cumulative effect, even if you don’t think you’re suffering the effects now, you can build resilience to lessen the harm on both your brain and your body.

The brain is plastic and can recover from the effects of stress. But first you need to understand it, notice your own personal reaction to it and to be honest about the level of stress you’re under.

There seems to be a ‘macho’ culture amongst many that being under a lot of stress and keeping going shows strength and power – but that apparent coping comes with a price and that price could be unacknowledged changes in the brain affecting decision making, empathy and relationships.

So maybe it is time to confess your stress, own up to it and own it — and begin to take steps to get control of it before it completely controls you.

So what can you do?

Before you can change anything you have to be aware of it; so begin by learning about stress. What is your unique reaction to stress? What is your stress limit? How do you behave when you are stressed?

Stress doesn’t have to be harmful and there is evidence that changing the way you think about stress can reduce the damage on your body. Developing the skills of emotional intelligence, especially self-awareness and understanding your emotional reactions to everyday events, is fundamental to changing your mind-set around stress. After all, you can’t change what you don’t know.

Secondly, mindfulness meditation has been found to help reduce the effects of stress – so much so that it is now offered in many clinical interventions.

Sleep, good quality sleep that is, always helps us cope better. Our brains need to relax and recover and carry out essential housekeeping, which it can’t do when we are awake.

Eating well and eating regularly keeps our blood sugars constant and avoids the dips and troughs that can affect mood and energy levels – and our sleep.

Finally, we should surround ourselves with people who care about us and for whom we care. Stress drives us to be social. It wants us to seek help when we are stressed or to reach out to others under stress. Having meaningful social contact can lessen the harm on our bodies caused by stress.

So do yourself and your brain a favour. Get a handle on your stress now — before it’s too late.

About the author:

HazelHazel McCallum helps managers and their teams to perform under pressure and develop the skills they need for the workplace of the future.

Advances in technology, an increasingly younger workforce and increasing competition posed by globalisation means that competencies need to be ‘future proofed’ if Managers and their teams are to survive and thrive.

Hazel’s interactive workshops use emotional intelligence skills to increase performance, focus and other practical interpersonal skills so that organisations can attract and retain the best talent and maintain a competitive edge.