Traumatic Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

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Last updated March 28, 2022.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, affecting brain health and function and putting you at risk for various mood and mental disorders.

Chronic stress is a modern epidemic.

The human body is not designed to be in a state of perpetual stress and continue to stay healthy.

Ninety percent of doctor visits are for stress-related health complaints. 

Chronic stress not only makes you more vulnerable to everything from cancer to the common cold, it also negatively impacts your brain. 

The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Excess Cortisol

There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress — and, perhaps surprisingly, not all stress is bad for you.

Good Stress

Acute stress is the reaction to an emergency or immediate threat, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response.

Once the threat has passed, levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.

Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes the brain for peak performance

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced on an as-needed basis in moments of extreme arousal.

They help you think and move fast in extreme situations.

In the right situation, these stress hormones can save your life.

They don’t linger in your body, instead they dissipate as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol and Bad Stress

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and that’s what makes it dangerous.

This stress hormone has been called “public enemy #1.” 

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Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems, including:

Cortisol also takes an equally high toll on mental health by changing the structure and function of the brain.

12 Ways Chronic Stress Negatively Affects the Brain

Some brain-related stress symptoms, like memory loss, brain fog, anxiety, and worry, will be obvious to you.

But most of the effects of stress discussed below are “behind the scenes.”

When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brain function and structure, even your DNA

You won’t notice these changes while they’re happening, but you will notice the resulting negative impact … eventually.

1. Stress Creates Free Radicals That Kill Brain Cells

Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate.

While glutamate is a necessary and important brain chemical, in excess it turns against the brain and becomes a neurotoxin.

Glutamate creates free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that attack brain cells in much the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. 

Free radicals actually punch holes in brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die.

Persistent stress also indirectly contributes to other lifestyle habits that create more free radicals.

If stress causes you to lose sleep, eat junk food, drink too much alcohol, or smoke cigarettes to cope, know that these unhealthy habits are adding to your free radical load.

2. Stress Makes You Forgetful and Emotional

Memory problems may be one of the first signs of chronic stress that you’ll notice. 

Misplaced items and missed appointments can have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.

" Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories.

If you find that all this stress is also making you more emotional, there’s a physiological reason for this.

Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken, while signals in areas of the brain associated with emotions strengthen

3. Stress Creates a Vicious Cycle of Fear and Anxiety

Chronic stress actually fortifies an area of the brain called the amygdala.

This is the brain’s fear center.

Stress increases the size, activity level, and number of neural connections in this part of the brain.

This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress

4. Stress Halts the Production of New Brain Cells

Every day we lose brain cells, but we also have the opportunity to create new ones.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral to keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation.

It’s often been called “fertilizer for the brain.”

BDNF can offset the negative effects of long-term stress on the brain. 

But cortisol halts the production of BDNF, resulting in the formation of fewer new brain cells. 

Lowered levels of BDNF are associated with many brain-related conditions, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

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5. Stress Depletes Critical Neurotransmitters

Brain cells communicate with each other via chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Constant stress reduces the level of critical feel-good neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine

Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.

Serotonin is dubbed the “happy molecule.”

It plays a large role in mood, learning, appetite control, and sleep.

Men and woman respond to low serotonin levels differently

Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety, and binge eating

Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders. 

Dopamine is known as the “motivation molecule.”

It’s in charge of our pleasure-reward system.

Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and depressed.

People with low levels of this neurotransmitter often use caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels.

Not sure if your depression is related to serotonin or dopamine?

Serotonin-based depression is characterized by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression manifests as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life.

6. Stress Puts You at Greater Risk for Mental Illnesses of All Kinds

Recent research has discovered physical differences in the brains of people with stress disorders. 

Chronic stress increases the risk for developing a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety and panic disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and substance abuse

7. Stress Makes You Stupid

Stress can cause the brain to seize up at the worst possible times — exams, job interviews, first dates, and public speaking come to mind. 

Oddly, this is actually a survival mechanism.

If you’re faced with a life and death situation, instinct and subconscious impulse overwhelm rational thought and reasoning.

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This might keep you from being killed in an encounter with a wild animal, but in modern life, this is rarely helpful.

Persistent stress 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.

8. Stress Shrinks Your Brain

Chronic stress can measurably shrink the brain.

Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that stores memories. 

The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory, and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over. 

Constant stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex.

This negatively affects decision-making, working memory, and impulse control

9. Stress Lets Toxins Into Your Brain

The brain is highly sensitive to toxins.

The blood-brain barrier consists of a group of highly specialized cells that act as the brain’s gatekeeper.

This semipermeable filter protects the brain from harmful substances, while letting needed nutrients into the brain.

Chronic stress makes the blood-brain barrier more permeable, essentially making it leaky. 

This lets undesirable substances — pathogens, heavy metals, chemicals, and neurotoxins of all kinds — enter the brain. 

10. Stress Increases Your Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s

One of the most worrying effects of chronic stress is an increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease is now the #1 health fear of American adults.

Alzheimer’s is also the sixth leading cause of death in the US.

One in three US seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia present.

And, it’s the most expensive disease in the country

There is no “magic bullet” to prevent Alzheimer’s.

Common sense advice for preventing and reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s includes: 

  • eat a healthy diet low in sugar and high in brain-healthy fats
  • exercise regularly
  • don’t smoking
  • stay mentally active
  • avoid toxic metal exposure
  • manage underlying health concerns (e.g., diabetes, hypertension)

Avoiding chronic stress should obviously be added to this list since elevated cortisol contributes to dementia in the elderly and hastens its progression. 

Midlife occurrences of prolonged anxiety, jealousy, or moodiness have been found to double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

11. Stress Causes Brain Cells to Commit Suicide

Long-term stress leads to premature aging on a cellular level, causing cells in both the body and brain to die prematurely.

To understand how this happens, we need to take a look at a part of our chromosomes called telomeres.

You may recall from high school biology that when a cell divides, it passes on genetic material to the new cell via chromosomes.

Telomeres are protective endcaps on our chromosomes similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces.

illustration of telomeres on chromosomes
Telomeres on the ends of chromosomes.

Every time a cell divides, the telomeres get a little shorter.

When they reach a critically shortened length, telomeres tell the cell to stop dividing, acting as a built-in suicide switch.

Subsequently, the cell dies.

Shortened telomeres lead to the atrophy of brain cells, while longer telomere length leads to the production of new brain cells. 

Telomere length may be the most important indicator of biological age and disease risk

Some researchers believe telomere length is a better predictor of the risk for age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer than conventional diagnostic tools.

12. Stress Contributes to Brain Inflammation and Depression

A little-known fact: the brain has its own immune system.

Special immune cells called microglia protect the brain and spinal cord from infections and toxins.

Unfortunately, a microglial cell has no on or off switch, so once it is activated, it creates inflammation for the rest of its lifespan.

Chronic stress is one of the factors that increases the risk of activating your microglia, thus producing brain inflammation.

It’s generally believed that depression is caused by serotonin deficiency, but there’s a growing body of evidence that brain inflammation may be the root cause of depression instead.

This theory is called the cytokine hypothesis of depression.

Activated microglia produce cytokines, proteins that turn on the inflammation response in the brain. 

Cytokine production is linked to depression, including major depressive disorder, and increased thoughts of suicide

It’s also associated with anxiety, memory loss, and the inability to concentrate, as well as some serious mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. 

How Stress Destroys Happiness

On top of all that …

Chronic stress destroys your happiness and peace of mind.

It wears you down mentally and emotionally and saps the joy from life.

Some side effects of constant stress that negatively impact your overall mental health include:

  • excessive worry and fear
  • anger and frustration
  • impatience with self and others
  • mood swings, crying spells, or suicidal thoughts
  • insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams
  • trouble concentrating and learning new information
  • racing thoughts and nervousness
  • forgetfulness and mental confusion
  • difficulty in making decisions
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances
  • excessive defensiveness or suspicion
  • increased smoking, alcohol or drug use, gambling, or impulse buying

In short, chronic stress leads to a bleak mental health outcome.

But there is plenty you can do to reduce or eliminate stress.

6 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

Eat Antioxidant-Rich Foods

Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.

Exercise Daily

Increase levels of brain-boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise.

Exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous; walking is excellent.

So are exercises with a strong mind-body connection like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.

Meditate

Start a daily meditation practice.

Meditation not only reduces ongoing stress, it’s also a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long. 

Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to control your thoughts.

Stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts — your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions — about these events.

Use a Relaxation Technique

Try one of the many mind-body relaxation techniques, such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, or autogenic training.

Try an Adaptogenic Herbal Remedy

Consider taking an adaptogenic herbal remedy.

Adaptogens increase your resilience to stress, while supporting overall health.

They promote a balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm.

Top adaptogens to consider include ashwagandha, ginseng, holy basil, Arctic root, and bacopa.

These herbs offer substantial brain-boosting health benefits as well. 

Get High-Quality Sleep

Get plenty of restful sleep.

It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, repairs itself, clears away metabolic debris, and grows new brain cells

Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain: Take the Next Step

Chronic stress takes a high toll on mental health and affects brain health and performance in very real ways.

It hastens brain aging, depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges the brain’s fear center, and halts the production of new brain cells.

Stress increases the risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

It also decreases mental functions of all kinds, leaving you less able to cope with daily life.

Fortunately, there is much you can do to reduce or stop the traumatic effects of chronic stress.

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