Traumatic Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC | Written by Deane Alban

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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. (1)

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, surprisingly, not all stress is bad for you.

Good Stress

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

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

Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes your brain for peak performance. (2)

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 an emergency.

In the right situation, they can save your life.

They don’t linger in the body, dissipating 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.” (3)

Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems including headaches, asthma, immune system dysfunction, weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive disorders, hormone imbalances, cancer, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. (4, 567)

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

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12 Ways Chronic Stress Negatively Affects Your 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 down to the level of your DNA. (8)

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

1. Stress Creates Free Radicals That Kill Brain Cells

Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate. (9)

While glutamate is a necessary and important brain chemical, in excess it turns against your 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. (10)

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, or to eat junk food, drink too much alcohol, or smoke cigarettes to cope, then these unhealthy habits add to your free radical load.

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2. Stress Makes You Forgetful and Emotional

Memory problems may be one of the first signs of chronic stress that you’ll notice. (11)

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 your 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. (12)

3. Stress Creates a Vicious Cycle of Fear and Anxiety

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

This is your 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. (13)

4. Stress Halts the Production of New Brain Cells

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

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. (14)

But cortisol halts the production of BDNF, resulting in the formation of fewer new brain cells. (15)

Lowered levels of BDNF are associated with brain-related conditions, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. (16)

5. Stress Depletes Critical Neurotransmitters

Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Constant stress reduces the level of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. (1718)

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.

Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety, and binge eating. (19, 2021)

Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders. (2223)

Dopamine is known as the “motivation molecule.”

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

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

People low in this brain chemical 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. (24)

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. (25)

Chronic stress puts you at increased risk for developing a variety of mental illnesses, including anxiety and panic disorders, depression, PTSD, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, drug addiction, and alcoholism. (262728)

7. Stress Makes You Stupid

Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times — exams, job interviews, and public speaking come to mind. (29)

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.

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

Persistent stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions. (3031)

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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8. Stress Shrinks Your Brain

Chronic stress can measurably shrink your brain.

Cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories. (32)

The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over. (3334)

Constant stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex.

This negatively affects decision-making, working memory, and impulse control. (35)

9. Stress Lets Toxins Into Your Brain

Your brain is highly sensitive to toxins.

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

This semi-permeable 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. (36)

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

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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. (37)

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

Common sense advice for preventing and reducing your risk for Alzheimer’s includes: (3839)

  • eating a healthy diet low in sugar and high in brain-healthy fats
  • exercising regularly
  • not smoking
  • staying mentally active
  • avoiding toxic metal exposure
  • managing underlying health concerns (i.e., 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. (40)

Mid-life occurrences of prolonged anxiety, jealousy, or moodiness have been found to double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. (41)

11. Stress Causes Brain Cells to Commit Suicide

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

To understand how this happens, we need to take a look at a part of your 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. (42)

Telomere length may be the most important indicator of biological age and disease risk. (43)

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

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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 model of depression.

Activated microglia produce cytokines — proteins that turn on the inflammation response in the brain. (4445)

Cytokine production is linked to depression, including major depressive disorder and increased thoughts of suicide. (46, 47)

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. (48)

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 outlook 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 from your life.

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. (49)

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.

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Use a Relaxation Technique

Try one of the many mind-body relaxation techniques, such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback, 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 benefits as well. 

Get High-Quality Sleep

Get plenty of restful sleep.

It’s during sleep that your brain consolidates memories, repairs itself, and grows new brain cells. (505152)

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

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

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

Stress increases your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases.

And frustratingly, it 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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