“Stress isn’t always a bad thing; it can be handy for a burst of extra energy and focus, like when you’re playing a competitive sport or have to speak in public. But when it’s continuous, it actually begins to change your brain. Chronic stress, like being overworked or having arguments at home, can affect brain size, its structure, and how it functions, right down to the level of your genes.”Madhumita Murgia, TED-Ed
We don’t like stress, but sometimes it is necessary to finish our work quickly and efficiently. Sometimes that stress about leaving the candle on back at home can drive you to go back and check, which can prevent a horrific disaster.
But most of the time these days, our fast-paced world solicits more stress from us than what we actually need. And here are 3 different ways that it is ruining our brains:
1. Stress can lead to mental illness
I’m sure that it is no surprise that the more stress you have, the crankier your brain gets. You can feel it yourself. Sometimes chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s and more. You feel down, forget things, and perhaps even feel irritable. But what’s the brain chemistry behind this issue?
Once the neurotransmitters have been released in the brain (ex. GABA, ) norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin) within seconds of any sign of a stressor, the stress hormone comes into play: cortisol. Too much cortisol over a long period of time can affect the amygdala. It then affects electric signals in the hippocampus, which would effect short and long term memory (pointing us to dementia), as well as emotions and learning skills. All together, it makes life for you and your brain harder, thus leading some people into a dark state of mind. Of course, scientists are trying to find direct links of stress to mental illness in the brain’s chemistry, and studies are coming out with new results every year.
2. Stress changes the shape and structure of your brain
Yup, you read that right — stress can change the physical aspect of the brain. We usually only ever relate the brain to mental topics, but the we need to remember that everything is happening chemically. And that affects things physically as well.
Chronic stress makes cells produce more myelin, which can damage the white matter and gray matter in your brain. Different parts of your brain start to degenerate much earlier in your life.
Finally, according to Madhumita Murgia on TED-Ed, as well as top researchers from Yale University, high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods of time result in the shrinking of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for decision making, attention-span, recognition, and some emotions. As neural connections start to die out, gray matter shrinks.
3. Brain cells are killed
This goes hand in hand with the other two ways that stress harms he brain. In fact, it is all interconnected. When our brain produces too much cortisol, it disrupts many functions. It eventually leads to killing off brain cells. These are our longest living cells in the body, so we need to take care of them.
So is there any way to stop it?
This may sound pretty scary, but stress is normal (just not high amounts). Stress motivates you to study for a test. It tells you not to procrastinate. So follow that little inkling before it spirals out of control. If you’re scared of stress, and what it entails, try to look at it in a positive light. Turn that evil stress into good stress!
Watch this TED-Ed talk: How to Make Stress Your Friend by Kelly McGonigal
Want to relieve bad stress? Here re some things that you can do to help make you feel better (not in order):
- Exercise: It releases your happy hormones! It also improves other aspects of your brain, including memory.
- Meditate: This calms you down and relaxes your mind. It can totally relieve stress if you are committed to it. Meditation is becoming very popular these days, and it’s health benefits are backed up by countless researchers.
- Enjoy nature: Nature just makes us feel good! There’s also a scientific reason behind that — nature has many negative ions that clear the air and boost our positive energy (of course, there are whole chemical processes that explain why that happens).
- Listen to music: Whether you like classical music or pop, sit back and chill to your favourite songs. It will make you feel at home and may even boost your energy (although if you want to calm down and relieve stress, classical music is the way to go).
- Sleep: When you sleep, the brain flushes out toxins and prepares for the next time you’re awake. Sleeping can help put you back on the right track when you wake up.
- Do a hobby: Whether its drawing, writing, reading, or binge-watching Netflix, it can calm you down after a stressful day at work or school. However, I would recommend a constructive hobby so that you don’t get mad at yourself for wasting your time afterwards, and consequently get more stressed.
- Talk to a family member or friend: Sometimes, we can’t get rid of our stress all on our own. So talk to a friend or family member to help!
I hope you learned something from this Brainology post. And you know what they all say: don’t let stress weigh you down. Take control of your life. Be happy!