This is how chronic stress can damage our brains and worsen our mental health

This is how chronic stress can damage our brains and worsen our mental health

Stress can save our lives or it can “make us lose it”. The human being is designed to face a danger with a spike of acute stress that allows us to fight or flee. However, that sustained stress over time can destroy our health little by little. The difference is in running ten seconds when a lion is coming towards us, or being permanently in that tension. What happens in the brain when we experience chronic stress and think that a lion is chasing us all day?

Effect of chronic stress on the brain

Physiology of the past to face problems of the future

Despite the time difference with the early hominids we are still pretty much the same at the genetic level. Primary emotions such as sadness, joy, anger and disgust do not understand race or centuries. What does a baby do when he eats a lemon or when he gets scared? Nothing different than what an adult does.

We can alter our physiology without moving from the site. Thinking about something that scares us can accelerate our pulse, increase our temperature and make us sweat. This activation will save life if we have to dodge a car so that it doesn’t hit us.

The problem comes when we start turn over and over again to problems of the future that have not yet happened, and with a high probability they will not occur. This chronic stress can cause many health problems, such as those that can occur at the digestive level: irritable bowel, ulcer…

The brain is prepared to face stress peaks, but not chronic stress


The brain does not escape from that high stress that we can find ourselves in the face of a fight or flight event, or that we can generate ourselves when thinking about any event. when we need it, our brain sharpens all its functions to choose the best option.

So far so good, but if this stress is maintained over time, a series of negative effects can occur in the brain that lead to different consequences such as memory loss, less control of our actions and a worse response when a stressful stimulus actually appears.

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The brain can modify its architecture with events such as hippocampal impairment (mainly in charge of memory) or the increase in the amygdala (emotions and reactions). All this can ultimately lead to mental illness or acceleration of neurodegenerative diseases (parkinon and Alzheimer’s are the best known).

The brain is plastic and can be modified by chronic stress

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Physical activity can improve brain structures and cognition in children and adults. Chronic stress can do the opposite: worsen brain structure and function. Therefore, good stress helps us perform well against a challengewhile bad stress can occur in problematic mods.

The gray matter of the brain is the part responsible for decision making and problem solving. A larger and better connected gray matter will make us choose better options and be more decisive. Chronic stress causes that gray matter to be alteredin favor of another less interesting substance at a cognitive level: the white matter.

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In normal situations our prefrontal cortex, part of the brain that is responsible for creativity and intelligence, has the highest load of activity against any cognitive task. In situations of stress activates other primitive parts, such as the amygdalawhich is responsible for survival.

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If the stress persists over time, these activations of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala alternate, the latter always remaining highly active. We are in survival mode and not in creative modeso our complex thoughts will be in the background, and we will be constantly prepared to fight or flee, with the physical and mental wear and tear that this entails.

Brain neurons can be ‘killed’ by chronic stress

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A single highly stressful event could kill neurons in the hippocampus, a center that is primarily responsible for memory. Learning also depends on the hippocampusand it is an area where the formation of neurons occurs throughout life.

The importance of stress in the hippocampus is not in the formation of new neurons, which seem to be unaffected, but in the probability that these new neurons survive or not. So we can meet impaired memory and fewer neurons due to chronic stressespecially for very stressful events.

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Cortisol released by stress is related to decreased short-term memory. if you’ve been through a very stressful event you may not rememberthat’s where the relationship between memory and stress is.

If cortisol remains elevated for a long time, it can continue interfering with learning and memory. When we are under pressure our brain uses its resources for survival, not for other tasks such as memory.

Stress damages emotional control

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Exposure to stress can reduce gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that is responsible for self-control and emotions. If we accumulate different stressful events in life we ​​can see ourselves with a poorer emotional control and regulation to overcome the next stressful event that occurs.

exist really stressful events like a car accident or the death of a loved one that affect the emotional consciousness and the soul centers. Against them we can do more or less depending on our emotional intelligence and the professionals we turn to.

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However, the human being has brain so powerful that it is able to “simulate the stress of these events without going through them. In both conditions the consequences are the same.

Changes in the brain can lead to mental illness

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If we are in a traffic jam for a long time, it is more likely that we can suffer a mood disturbance. In the long term, this chronic stress similar to what we can suffer in this traffic jam produces changes in the brain.

We have already seen some of these changes, such as the involvement of the hippocampus (memory, learning and new neurons) or the decrease in gray mass (good decision-making). These and other modifications could develop mental disorders such as depression or others related to incorrect neurological functioning.

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