Structural Plasticity In Other Brain Regions
The discovery and implications of stress and glucocorticoid effects in the hippocampus have led to exploration of other brain regions involved in cognition, mood, and behavioral self-regulation. The amygdala shows quite different responses to acute and chronic stress than the hippocampus. The amygdala responds to glucocorticoids in the formation of emotionally charged memories , and acute stress causes a delayed formation of dendritic spines in basolateral amygdala neurons and an increase of anxiety after 10 d . Chronic stress of the same type, which impairs dentate gyrus neurogenesis and causes dendritic shrinkage and spine loss in Ammons horn neurons, causes expansion of dendrites in the basolateral amygdala while causing spine down-regulation in the medial amygdala . The latter is dependent on tissue plasminogen activator, whereas the former is not .
Ways To Protect Your Brain From Stress
Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but minimizing stress and protecting your brain against its effects is easier than you might think.
Lifestyle Habits to Reduce Harmful Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain
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Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.
Stress Makes You Stupid
Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times exams, job interviews, first dates, and public speaking come to mind.
This is actually a survival mechanism.
If youre faced with a life and death situation, instinct and subconscious impulse overwhelm rational thought and reasoning.
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It negatively impacts virtually every cognitive skill you rely on to get through the day, including your ability to pay attention, remember, solve problems, make decisions, and think critically.
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Stress Can Lead To Longer Term Mental Health Issues
In the longer term, chronic stress sets the scene for more severe mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and potentially even Alzheimers disease. Due to continuous disruptions to the brains structure and function, both nerve cells and the connections between them are affected permanently. Recent studies have concluded that these changes, along with other factors, can increase the likelihood of developing mental illness.
Stress Management Through Physical Activity
For many people, an exercise routine builds self-esteem. You may find satisfaction from going to the gym or developing creative ways to exercise indoors.
Feeling good about how you handle exercise may make it easier to take other precautions against stress, including sleeping well or taking breaks from work.
A 2021 meta-analysis found evidence that exercise improves someones perceived sleep quality and lessens insomnia severity in adults. Also, a 2020 review concluded that strength training helps with the pain of tension-type headaches and aerobic training helps reduce the severity of migraine headaches.
Overall, exercise might help reduce the severity of several triggers for stress, including poor sleep and headaches. Exercise may even curb your symptoms of stress and make you more likely to handle new stress better.
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Stress And The Function Of The Cardiovascular System
The existence of a positive association between stress and cardiovascular disease has been verified . Stress, whether acute or chronic, has a deleterious effect on the function of the cardiovascular system . The effects of stress on the cardiovascular system are not only stimulatory, but also inhibitory in nature . It can be postulated that stress causes autonomic nervous system activation and indirectly affects the function of the cardiovascular system . If these effects occur upon activation of the sympathetic nervous system, then it mainly results in an increase in heart rate, strength of contraction, vasodilation in the arteries of skeletal muscles, a narrowing of the veins, contraction of the arteries in the spleen and kidneys, and decreased sodium excretion by the kidneys . Sometimes, stress activates the parasympathetic nervous system . Specifically, if it leads to stimulation of the limbic system, it results in a decrease, or even a total stopping of the heart-beat, decreased contractility, reduction in the guidance of impulses by the heart stimulus-transmission network, peripheral vasodilatation, and a decline in blood pressure . Finally, stress can modulate vascular endothelial cell function and increase the risk of thrombosis and ischemia, as well as increase platelet aggregation .
Stress Can Affect Your Mood
Your brain records things as you perceive them, not as they actually happen. When you are in a stressed survival mode, you become hypersensitive to the external environment and your brain associates everything as a potential danger. In this state, it is unable to judge situations effectively and misinterprets cues and assumes the worst. Consequently, stress makes every external factor appear negative, putting you in a constant defensive mode. This causes abnormal reactions, and over time the brain struggles to readapt and can stay in that negative mode.
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How Does Chronic Stress Physically Change The Brain
Chronic, or long-term, stress can affect the size of your brain and even its genetic makeup.
Many of these physical changes happen as a result of high cortisol levels and changes to the way your brain functions under prolonged stress.
For instance, according to 2008 research , long-term exposure to cortisol can shrink the prefrontal cortex, the area of your brain involved with planning and making decisions.
Research from 2016 found higher cortisol levels were directly linked to a lower volume of many parts of the prefrontal cortex.
Stuck on repeat
One theory is that over time, emotional responses to stress become a vicious cycle in the brain.
If your brain keeps activating a stress response in more situations, it may cause the parts of your brain that get more use like the amygdala to strengthen. Other areas that get less use as a result the prefrontal cortex can become smaller with less use.
Smaller capacity for memory and emotional regulation
In addition, stress can affect your brains DNA through epigenetics, a process in which your environment interacts with and can suppress or activate family genes.
For example, according to , stress caused by childhood trauma is connected with epigenetic changes to the brains DNA and HPA axis.
These changes then impact your brains and your response to stress.
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What Is Toxic Stress
Toxic stress isnt so much about the cause of the stress, but about the chronic and ongoing nature of the stress.
Everyone will experience stress. Its a very normal and healthy part of being human. For children though, a little goes a long way. It is through stressful times that kids learn resilience, determination, optimism and how to soothe themselves when things start to get tough. When stress is managed in the context of loving, stable and caring relationships, where children feel safe and secure, they can get through stressful, traumatic times without scarring.
The fallout from physical or emotional abuse and neglect is obvious, but then there are the more indirect hits, such as chronic conflict in the home, a parent battling addiction, maternal depression, or serious illness. The stress from these doesnt have to turn toxic but it can. A prime conditions for this happening is when there is no loving, supportive, attentive relationship to buffer the impact. The relationship doesnt have to be with a parent any adult can make a powerful difference.
What Can You Do About Stress
Stress is really a double-edged sword. You need it to survive and thrive, but too much of it will kill youliterally. So how do you manage stress without venting your anger on your coworkers or curling up into a ball? Try these three tips: First, get enough sleep. Second, get some exercise in each day. And third , learn how to calm down when youre feeling stressed out. If possible, take five minutes and try to picture something that makes you happymaybe a beach scene or your favorite memory from childhood?
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Stress Can Affect Decision
Stress not only impacts our memory, but many other brain functions. While the brain experiences continuous stress and works on fighting it, another part of the brain which takes a backseat is the prefrontal cortex.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain which coordinates higher-order tasks such as decision-making, judgement and social interaction. However, when you enter in survival mode, this part of the brain doesnt perform at its best, making it much harder for us to operate intelligently and achieve our goals. Over time, stress can actually cause the prefrontal cortex to shrink, resulting in longer term issues.
Leading Causes Of Stress
Stress occurs for a number of reasons. The 2015 Stress in America survey reported that money and work were the top two sources of stress for adults in the United States for the eighth year in a row. Other common contributors included family responsibilities, personal health concerns, health problems affecting the family and the economy.
The study found that women consistently struggle with more stress than men. Millennials and Generation Xers deal with more stress than baby boomers. And those who face discrimination based on characteristics such as race, disability status or LGBT identification struggle with more stress than their counterparts who do not regularly encounter such societal biases.
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What Is The Difference Between Stress And Anxiety
To understand stress as a biological process, it is important to know the difference between stress and anxiety.
Stress is a physical change that takes place in the body. It occurs because of different stress factors. Examples of stress factors include meeting new people or being physically threatened. Stress can be measured by measuring changes in the levels of stress-related hormones in the body. These hormones control human behaviour in response to a specific stress factor.
For example, imagine you are playing laser tag. The game simulates a predator-prey relationship or fighting. You are trying to tag somebody while trying to avoid being tagged yourself. This triggers your “fight or flight” response. When playing the game, you will naturally become stressed. Your stress hormone levels will go up, causing you to be more alert and active. In this case, stress is beneficial. But having a constant increase in stress levels can actually lead to depression and mental health issues. Thats why it is important to know the different types of stress.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, or of being overwhelmed. It usually results from being afraid of something. For example, it is common to feel anxious about an upcoming test because you are afraid of failing or doing poorly. Anxiety is a negative feeling in response to stress.
The Effects Of Stress On Your Body
Youre sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a tiny control tower in your brain, decides to send out the order: Send in the stress hormones! These stress hormones are the same ones that trigger your bodys fight or flight response. Your heart races, your breath quickens, and your muscles ready for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react quickly. But when the stress response keeps firing, day after day, it could put your health at serious risk.
Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone expresses stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events such as a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can trigger stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and ready your muscles to respond.
Yet if your stress response doesnt stop firing, and these stress levels stay elevated far longer than is necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:
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What Can Be Done
In a companion article, Judge Cindy Lederman describes the desperate situation of children who have been deprived of nurturing stimulation in a healthy home environment and, instead, experienced verbal, physical, and sexual abuse and neglect. Thus, preventive interventions to reduce adversity and thereby help improve brain and body wellness for children must focus on the family. Programs like Head Start have worked best when the family environment supports the child and the child comes home to a stable and understanding environment. The Perry School Project is an example of this combination and has shown a large return on investment, not only in earnings and achievement for the individual but also for society, which will experience less crime, less need for special education and welfare services, and greater income tax revenue. Programs like Nurse-Family Partnership provide social support and education for first-time mothers and families, and the Harlem Childrens Zone Baby College provides this type of education in a class for expectant mothers and their partners. Yet, as Judge Lederman notes, society must not give up on those who have suffered the effects of adverse childhood experiences, as intervention on behalf of those babies and children will help them compensate for early-life stress. Such work requires investment of considerable time and effort and further underscores the need for prevention.
Improving Your Ability To Handle Stress
Get moving. Upping your activity level is one tactic you can employ right now to help relieve stress and start to feel better. Regular exercise can lift your mood and serve as a distraction from worries, allowing you to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed stress. Rhythmic exercises such as walking, running, swimming, and dancing are particularly effective, especially if you exercise mindfully .
Connect to others. The simple act of talking face-to-face with another human can trigger hormones that relieve stress when youre feeling agitated or insecure. Even just a brief exchange of kind words or a friendly look from another human being can help calm and soothe your nervous system. So, spend time with people who improve your mood and dont let your responsibilities keep you from having a social life. If you dont have any close relationships, or your relationships are the source of your stress, make it a priority to build stronger and more satisfying connections.
Engage your senses. Another fast way to relieve stress is by engaging one or more of your sensessight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement. The key is to find the sensory input that works for you. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
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Sex Differences In The Brain
Female rodents do not show the same pattern of neural remodeling after chronic stress as do males. The first realization of this was for the hippocampus, in which the remodeling of CA3 dendrites did not occur in females after Chronic Restraint Stress , even though all the measures of stress hormones indicated that the females were experiencing that aspect of stress as much as males. Females and males also differ in the cognitive consequences of repeated stress, with males showing impairment of hippocampal dependent memory, whereas females do not. In contrast, acute tail shock stress during classical eyeblink conditioning improves performance in males, but suppresses it in females by mechanisms influenced by gonadal hormones in development and in adult life., However, giving male and female rats control over the shock abolishes both the stress effects and the sex differences. These findings suggest that sex differences involve brain systems that mediate how males and females interpret stressful stimuli and that a sense of control is paramount to coping with those stimuli.
The Brain The Body And Toxic Stress
When the brain is constantly exposed to a toxic environment, it will shut down to protect itself from that environment. The brain continues working, but its rate of growth slows right down, creating a vulnerability to anxiety, depression and less resilience to stress.
Toxic stress affects people across all stages of the life span. The long-term effects will differ depending on the age of the person and the stage of brain development they are at when they are exposed to the stress.
The younger the brain, the more damaging the effects of toxic stress. A prenatal and early childhood brain is growing, developing and absorbing so much of what it is exposed to in the environment. This makes it incredibly vulnerable to chemical influences, such as stress hormones, which can cause long-term changes. Stress during this period will have broad impact, particularly on learning and memory.
Toxic stress during later childhood and adolescence will cause more problems for attention and impulse and emotional control, as these are the parts of the brain that are developing rapidly during this period.
During late adolescence or early adulthood, exposure to toxic stress will create a greater sensitivity to anything stressful and a more intense and enduring stress response.
Exposure to toxic stress during adulthood will intensify the ageing process and affect memory, cognition and emotion.
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