Not all stress is bad for you. Some forms of stress serve to sharpen your focus and push you to act in the moment – like the stress you feel when you’re under a deadline at work, or when your child is crying. But there are two types of stress that can, essentially, damage your brain: acute stress and chronic stress.
Acute stress isn’t necessarily bad; it’s only when the stress is associated with a traumatic event that it becomes damaging and can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
On the other hand, chronic stress can be fatal; it makes you more vulnerable for all kinds of diseases, from the common cold to certain types of cancer(1). People who experience chronic stress are more likely to smoke and consume alcohol(2), two major health risk factors. In fact, a staggering ninety percent of doctor’s visits are for complaints that are or may be stress-related(3).
Chronic Stress And Your Brain
There is evidence that chronic stress alters the way your brain functions as well. People dealing with chronic stress may experience obvious symptoms like forgetfulness, worry, and anxiety, but the majority of the impact happens behind the scenes – carried out in the way your brain works.
The overproduction of stress hormones can impact the way you feel and behave on a fundamental level. When your brain becomes overwhelmed with stress hormones on a chronic basis, it can have a whole host of side effects. Here are some of the long-term symptoms of chronic stress:
1. Chronic Stress Makes You Tired
Overproduction of the stress hormone cortisol, which is caused by chronic stress, can lead to many health problems – heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, for example(4) – but the main symptom of too much cortisol is that it overwhelms your adrenal glands, leaving you feeling exhausted.
2. Chronic Stress Makes You Emotional And Forgetful
Forgetfulness is one of the most common signs of stress – you misplace your keys and forget doctors appointments, all of which only adds to the stress you feel(5). But chronic stress can also weaken factual memories and interfere with critical thinking(6).
3. Stress Kills Brain Cells – And Halts The Production Of New Ones
If you’re experiencing chronic stress, it may be quite literally killing your brain. Cortisol produces a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which creates free radicals that kill brain cells(7). This would be fine if the brain were able to replace these cells like it should – but when you’re under chronic stress, it just can’t; cortisol also halts the production of another neutrotransmitter, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF) which is integral to the production of new brain cells(8).
4. Chronic Stress Elevates Your Risk For Mental Illness
Because chronic stress affects your neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, those experiencing chronic stress are at a greater risk for developing mental illnesses like depression(9) and anxiety disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder.
5. Chronic Stress Makes You Less Intelligent
Or at least, it makes it harder for you to act on your intelligence – in times of stress, we tend to seize up. You’ve probably experienced this before, in job interviews, exams, or when faced with situations like public speaking.
This kind of thing is an evolutionary development left over from more primitive times – when our ancestors were faced with fight-or-flight situations, it was helpful to have a mechanism that allowed stress to override rational thought and allow instinct and training to take over.
But in modern life, this is rarely useful; stressful situations tend to be when we need our rational mind the most. Chronic stress can impact your cognitive function(10) significantly, leaving you feeling “dumber” than you otherwise would.
Reducing Your Stress Levels
If you’re concerned about the effects of chronic stress in your life, you probably should be – many people experience chronic stress and feel the effects of it. But there are things you can do to reduce the impact of chronic stress on your brain and body.
First, make sure you eat plenty of antioxidant-rich foods – fresh fruits and leafy green vegetables, dark chocolate, even green tea is rich in antioxidants.
You can also give your neurotransmitters a boost by getting daily physical exercise – even a 20-minute walk each day can make a difference. While you’re at it, you can incorporate mindfulness exercises into your physical exercise routine; studies have shown that these kinds of exercises reduce stress significantly(11).
Managing stress well can mean the difference between a healthier life and a life spent plagued with illness and cognitive impairment. It’s in your best interest to learn to manage your stress in positive ways.