How Stress Affects The Brain – Clinically Reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD — By Ann Pietrangelo — Updated March 21, 2023
Stress triggers the body’s fight-or-flight response. Chronic stress can cause negative health effects on your mood, immune and digestive systems, and cardiovascular health.
How Stress Affects The Brain
You’re sitting in traffic, late for an important meeting, watching the minutes tick away. Your hypothalamus, a little control tower in your brain, decides to send the order: send the stress hormones! These stress hormones are what trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Your heart races, your breathing quickens, and your muscles brace for action. This response was designed to protect your body in an emergency by preparing you to react immediately. But when the stress response continues to fire day after day, it can put your health at serious risk.
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Stress is a natural physical and mental reaction to life experiences. Everyone experiences stress from time to time. Anything from everyday responsibilities like work and family to serious life events like a new diagnosis, war, or the death of a loved one can cause stress. For immediate, short-term situations, stress can be beneficial to your health. It can help you cope with potentially serious situations. Your body responds to stress by releasing hormones that increase your heart and breathing rates and prime your muscles to respond.
Yet if your stress response doesn’t stop firing, and these stress levels remain higher than necessary for survival, it can take a toll on your health. Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms and affect your overall well-being. Symptoms of chronic stress include:
Your central nervous system (CNS) is in charge of your “fight or flight” response. In your brain, the hypothalamus gets the ball rolling, telling your adrenal glands to release the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones increase your heart rate and send blood to the areas that need it most in an emergency, such as your muscles, heart and other vital organs.
When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus must tell all systems to return to normal. If the CNS fails to return to normal, or if the stressor does not resolve, the response will continue.
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Chronic stress is also a factor in behaviors such as overeating or not eating enough, alcohol or drug abuse, and social withdrawal.
Stress hormones affect your respiratory and cardiovascular systems. During the stress response, you breathe faster in an attempt to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. If you already have a breathing problem like asthma or emphysema, stress can make breathing even harder.
Under stress, your heart also pumps faster. Stress hormones constrict your blood vessels and divert more oxygen to your muscles so you have more energy for action. But it also raises your blood pressure.
As a result, repeated or chronic stress will force your heart to work too hard for too long. When your blood pressure rises, so does your risk of having a stroke or heart attack.
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Under stress, your liver produces extra blood sugar (glucose) to give you an energy boost. If you are under chronic stress, your body may not be able to sustain this extra glucose surge. Chronic stress can increase your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
A rush of hormones, rapid breathing, and increased heart rate can also upset your digestive system. You are more likely to develop heartburn or acid reflux due to increased stomach acid. Stress doesn’t cause ulcers (a bacteria called H. pylori often does), but it can increase your risk for them and cause existing ulcers to act up.
Stress can also affect the way food moves through your body, leading to diarrhea or constipation. You may also experience nausea, vomiting, or stomach pain.
When you are stressed your muscles tense up to protect themselves from injury. They release again when you relax, but if you are constantly stressed, your muscles may not get a chance to relax. Tight muscles cause headaches, back and shoulder pain, and body aches. Over time, this can set off an unhealthy cycle as you stop exercising and turn to pain medication for relief.
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Stress is exhausting for both body and mind. It’s not uncommon to lose your willpower when you’re constantly stressed. Although short-term stress can increase the production of the male hormone testosterone in men, this effect does not last.
If stress continues for a long period of time, a man’s testosterone levels can begin to decline. It can disrupt sperm production and cause erectile dysfunction or impotence. Chronic stress can also increase the risk of infection for male reproductive organs such as the prostate and testicles.
For women, stress can affect the menstrual cycle. This can cause irregular, heavier, or more painful periods. Chronic stress can also exacerbate the physical symptoms of menopause.
Stress stimulates the immune system, which can be a plus for urgent situations. This stimulation can help you avoid infections and heal wounds. But over time, stress hormones will weaken your immune system and reduce your body’s response to foreign invaders. People under chronic stress are more susceptible to viral illnesses like the flu and the common cold, as well as other infections. Stress can also increase the time it takes you to recover from an illness or injury.
How Stress Affects Brain And Body
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Our experts constantly monitor the health and wellness space, and we update our articles as new information becomes available. Dr Kesar has received a research grant from the Academy of Medical Sciences.
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A little stress is a normal part of our daily lives, which can even be good for us. Coping with stressful events can make us more resilient. But when stress is severe or chronic – for example due to a marriage or partnership breakdown, a death in the family or bullying – it needs to be dealt with immediately.
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This is because repeated stress can take a toll on our brains, putting us at risk of many physical and psychological problems.
Repeated stress is a major cause of persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by the blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can enter the brain.
The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect neural systems involved in motivation and mental agility.
There is also evidence of the effects of chronic stress on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, chronic levels of cortisol have been linked to mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause a number of physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles.
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It is well established that chronic stress can lead to depression, which is a leading cause of disability worldwide. It’s also a recurring condition – people who have experienced depression are at risk for future depression, especially under stress.
There are many reasons for this, and they can be linked to changes in the brain. Reduced hippocampus exposure to stress hormones and chronic inflammation is seen more commonly in depressed patients compared to healthy people.
Chronic stress also eventually changes chemicals in the brain that modulate cognition and mood, including serotonin. Serotonin is important for mood regulation and well-being. In fact, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used to restore the functional activity of serotonin in the brain in people with depression.
Disruption of sleep and circadian rhythms is a common feature in many psychiatric disorders, including depression and anxiety. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, play a key modulatory role in sleep. Elevated cortisol levels can therefore interfere with our sleep. Restoration of sleep patterns and circadian rhythms may therefore provide a therapeutic approach for these conditions.
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Depression can have far-reaching consequences. Our own work has shown that depression impairs cognition in non-emotional domains, such as planning and problem-solving, and in emotional and social domains, such as creating attentional biases for negative information.
In addition to depression and anxiety, chronic stress and its impact on work can lead to symptoms of burnout, which are also associated with an increased frequency of cognitive failures in daily life. As individuals are required to carry increased workloads at work or school, this can reduce feelings of accomplishment and increase susceptibility to anxiety, creating a vicious cycle.
Stress can also disrupt our balance between rational
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