8 Ways Stress Affects Your Brain

Stress is a common part of daily life. Stress comes in a variety of different forms and happens every day. From trying to juggle family, work, and school commitments to issues like health, money, and relationships — we all have stress.

You’ve probably heard about how bad stress is for your mind and body, but you might not realize how serious of an impact stress can have on the brain. Research has found that stress can produce a wide range of negative effects on the brain ranging from contributing to mental illness to shrinking the volume of the brain.

Stress and the brain

Stress depletes your precious brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, causing depression and anxiety.

Serotonin is the happy brain chemical that also plays a role in mood, learning, appetite, and sleep. Low serotonin is directly related to depression and anxiety, and low dopamine causes a lack of zest, enthusiasm, and motivation for life and is the primary factor in addictions.

Stress halts the production of new brain cells, which explains why when we are overly stressed, we don’t always think clearly or act in our best interests.

Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s essential for keeping brain cells healthy, but high-stress cortisol production or stress hormone imbalances reduce the production of BDNF, resulting in a halted production of new brain cells. The good news is that putting a stop to this imbalance means that, as you age, you can still make new, healthy brain cells. (Thank goodness!)

Chronic stress creates brain fog and emotional instability.

Memory problems and a lack of concentration and focus are the hallmarks of chronic stress. Research clearly shows that chronic high stress causes electrical signals in the brain to be delayed or compromised, leaving us wondering why we walked into the bathroom only seconds after we knew we had to go pee.

Stress increases the radical damage in our brain.

With high stress, free radicals (killer molecules) are made in surplus, which can cause normal healthy brain cells to rupture and die. If this is coupled with lack of sleep, poor diet, and excessive nutrient deficiencies, the free radical formation increases even more.

Stress makes your brain small.

Yes, you heard that right. Research continues to show that high stress halts the making of new brain cells and neuronal pathways in the brain. Stress shrinks areas like the hippocampus (an area important for memory and emotions) and the prefrontal cortex (an area important for decision making and impulsive behavior).

Stress increases the chances you will have Alzheimer’s and dementia.

One in three US seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia. So, we should be careful to protect our brains.

Stress can lead to a toxic waste site in the brain.

Every cell in our body is sensitive to toxins, but the brain is on the top of the list when it comes to sensitivity. We have a brain filter that normally keeps us safe, but when this barrier is compromised with stress, causing it to be “leaky,” it lets in pathogens, poisons like heavy metals, chemicals, and other toxins we are exposed to.

Stress causes the brain to become inflamed.

There are special cells in the brain called microglia that protect the brain from infection and toxins. Essentially, they are part of the brain’s immune system. Unfortunately, with high, relentless stress, these microglia overreact, causing inflammation. This inflammation seems to have a role in all areas of disease in the body and can lead to depression.

Ansell EB, Rando K, Tuit K, Guarnaccia J, Sinha R. Cumulative adversity and smaller gray matter volume in medial prefrontal, anterior cingulate, and insula regions. Biol Psychiatry. 2012;72(1):57-64. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.11.022