How Stress Affects the Mind
Stress can weigh heavy on your mind. Your brain can only handle so much of it before you experience problems. Short-term stress comes with short-term effects, but 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 in the brain actually shrinking it in areas most commonly associated with memory, metabolism, and emotions. While chronic stress tends to be a factor for a lot of these other affects, this one is actually due to short-term stress working in conjunction with everyday stress. While chronic stress by itself doesn’t seem to have any effect on the overall volume of the brain, chronic stress makes your brain more susceptible to shrinkage when it faces intense stress.
Damage New Brain Cells
There is evidence suggesting that stress can actually kill new neurons in your brain’s hippocampus. 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 amount of neurons created, stress influences the likelihood that a newly created neuron may or may not survive, leading to more neurons dying almost immediately after creation.
Affects Mental Illness
Chronic stress on the brain is a factor in people developing mood and anxiety disorders later in life, including depression and several other emotional disorders. This is due to the previously mentioned overproduction of myelin and the killing off of new neurons in the brain. The hippocampus, your brain’s center for emotion, learning, and memory, is more susceptible to this type of change.
Both short-term stress and long-term stress can have negative effects on your memory. Short-term stress can lead to short-term memory loss in the moment, like forgetting where you placed your keys. This is usually a short-term loss and doesn’t have any lingering results. Long-term stress affects your memory the most. Long-term stress affects what’s known as spatial memory, which is what allows you to remember locations and placements of items. Chronic stress can also lead to a decline in overall short-term memory and memory retrieval.
The effect of stress on your memory isn’t always bad, though. According to a study published in the Excli Journal in 2017, “Stress does not always affect memory. Sometimes, under special conditions, stress can actually improve memory. These conditions include non-familiarity, non-predictability, and life-threatening aspects of imposed stimulation. Under these specific conditions, stress can temporarily improve the function of the brain and, therefore, memory.” For example, people often have vivid memories around a traumatic event that they don't have for more normal events.
What Can You Do To Protect Yourself From 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. Your sleep schedule can affect your stress levels. Sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of stress. This also works the other way around. Having too much stress can lead to your sleep schedule going out of whack, and then your sleep schedule and stress can start feeding into each other. 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.
- 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, do whatever you can to manage your stress levels. Short-term stress doesn’t affect your mind too harshly, but chronic stress is what can hurt you in the long run. If you’re dealing with chronic stress and can’t manage, please speak with a physician so they can help you manage your stress and keep you healthier for longer.