How Stress Affects the Mind
Stress can weigh heavy on your mind and your brain can only handle so much of it before you experience problems. Chronic stress can have an adverse effect on the overall health of your mind. Today we’re talking about some effects that stress, both short-term and long-term, has on the brain.
Changes Your Brain
Believe it or not, stress can actually change the overall structure and function of your brain. One example is changing the amount of "white matter" in your brain. Your brain has axons that connect different regions of the brain together in order to send information. The insulating layer around nerves is called myelin, and it increases how fast a nerve can send information. Because it is mostly made of fat, it appears white and is part of what is called "white matter" in your brain and it can be measured. The "gray matter" is made up of the bodies of nerves and where they connect with each other. Chronic stress triggers your brain to make more myelin, which increases the relative amount of white matter in the brain. This imbalance between white and gray matter can lead to brain abnormalities, which makes you prone to mental illness. This type of imbalance is common in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Shrinks Your Brain
Another physical change that stress can cause the areas most commonly associated with memory, metabolism, and emotions to shrink in volume, or atrophy. This is more common for brains that experience spikes of short-term stress on top of chronic stress. A consistent amount of chronic stress without these spikes in stress levels does not seem to be correlated to brain atrophy.
Damage New Brain Cells
There is evidence suggesting that stress can limit how long new neurons live. Your hippocampus is not only the part of your brain responsible for memory, emotion, and learning, but it’s also responsible for creating new brain cells throughout your life. While stress doesn’t decrease the number of new neurons, it makes lifespan of new neurons shorter.
Short-term stressors can temporally enhance your memory. For example, it is often easy to remember vivid details around a scary event, like an accident. The stressful conditions for this "include non-familiarity, non-predictability, and life-threatening aspects," according to a study published in the Excli Journal in 2017. On the flip side, if the short-term stressor does not have these characteristics, it limits short-term memory and makes it easier to forget where you placed your keys. This is usually a temporary change. In contrast, chronic stress affects can also lead to a decline in overall short-term memory and memory retrieval.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself From Stress?
As chronic stress makes it easier to develop mental illness, such as depression and anxiety, it is important to limit chronic stress. There are a handful of things to help protect your brain from the negative effects of stress. These include, but are not limited to:
- Realize what you have control over. You can’t control everything, so even if you can’t control a stressful situation, focus on the things you have control over. Developing a predictable routine to counteract the stress of an out-of-control situation can be good for your health.
- Stay organized. Developing a routine workflow can help you manage your stress. Doing things like creating a “to do” list can keep you focused on accomplishing your tasks and make them not seem as daunting, lowering your levels of stress.
- Change your attitude. Changing the way you think about it may be easier said than done, but changing your attitude towards stress can help with proper stress management. Instead of hoping for no stress in your life, try taking healthier approaches to the stress you have in your life.
- Maintain a good sleep schedule. Limited sleep and stress go hand in hand. Sleep deprivation causes stress, while stress can cause sleep deprivation. Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule and doing things like avoiding caffeine after a certain time and creating a relaxing sleep environment can help you with your stress and have several other benefits to both your mental and physical health. You can find more details on sleep hygiene here.
- Get help. If you need help, reach out to someone for help. Not only does it help you manage stress better, but having someone to help you through can reduce stress by getting things either off of your plate or off of your mind, making it easier to deal with.
- For more tips, check out 10 Practices for Reducing Anxiety.
Stress can take its toll on the mind in both physical and psychological ways. While it’s impossible to avoid stress altogether, managing your stress levels will limit the long-term impact. If you are struggling with mental illness, it is important to speak with your health care provider to address this. For more ways to support your mental health, check out these mental health services or meet with one of our health coaches.