Stress is a natural part of life. From looming work deadlines and financial pressures to daily hassles like traffic jams, we all experience stress. Although it can be unpleasant, stress can be a good thing in the short term. Fight-or-flight, our short-term response to stress, evolved as a survival mechanism, allowing us to perform under conditions that involve a threat, challenge, or opportunity. Some research even suggests our short-term stress enhances cognitive function and physical performance.
However, when you experience stress over a long period, it can have negative consequences on the brain and body and may also trigger structural and functional changes within the brain.
In this article, we discuss the relationship between short- and long-term stress and brain function as well as methods for reducing stress to protect your health.
When we encounter stressful or otherwise threatening situations, the body (e.g., the eyes or ears) alerts the amygdala, a region of the brain associated with emotional processes. If the amygdala senses danger, it sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, the brain's command center that communicates with the body through the autonomic nervous system, triggering a cascade of events. This includes the production and secretion of stress hormones (e.g., adrenaline and cortisol), an increase in blood glucose levels, an increase in breathing and heart rate, and heightened senses (alertness, sight, hearing, etc.), all of which return to normal after the threat has passed.
During this short time, researchers hypothesize that the brain may divert its resources primarily to the amygdala to fight or flee the perceived threat. With the amygdala receiving the majority of the energy, other brain regions responsible for cognitive functions, like memory, executive function, attention, and concentration, may not receive sufficient energy. This explains why we often can’t remember all of the details of a highly stressful or traumatic situation.
The relationship between stress and brain function extends beyond their interaction in the short term. The brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and change with its environment. If the brain is constantly under stress, and the amygdala experiences more activity than the other parts of the brain, the amygdala may become stronger while other regions become weaker. Studies have even found that chronic stress may cause structural changes within the brain, such as remodeling of dendrites and synaptic connections in the hippocampus, amygdala, medial prefrontal cortex, and orbitofrontal cortex.
Chronic stress is also associated with an increased risk of serious health conditions, including heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, sleep problems, anxiety and depression, and weight gain—all of which have also been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.
Although chronic stress and brain function are related, there’s plenty you can do to reduce stress and protect your health. First and foremost, try to identify the source of stress in your life. When possible, remove yourself from situations that trigger your stress.
Self-care activities, such as those listed below, can work wonders for stress management—plus, they’re all important elements of living a healthy, balanced life.
Stress management can look different for everyone. At the end of the day, what matters is that you find something that works for you. Carve out time each day for yourself. And most importantly, never be afraid to seek professional support; nobody should have to struggle alone.
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