Stress and pressure is everywhere in our modern life and whilst a moderate amount is positive, helping us enhance performance, it can quickly become negative with some unpleasant and long lasting side effects on our body and brain. The effects of stress and pressure on the brain are less well known but no less harmful than the host of noticeable and visible health issues. Interestingly, stress and pressure isn’t directly caused by events or situations but more by our automatic thoughts and feelings about these events.
As an aside Mentally Tough people can generally manage stress better through greater control over those thoughts and feelings.
There are broadly, two main kinds of negative stress – adrenalin and cortisol.
Adrenalin is the hormone your body produces when you feel threatened and in a matter of seconds it floods your system and prepares you for action to either ‘ flight or fight’ the danger. This “priming” can improve your immediate physical performance as it releases energy but at the same time produces an emotional reaction in that it derails any high level planning, analysis or decision-making. After a short while, usually minutes, your body returns to normal as the adrenalin levels subside with no long lasting effects.
However sustained long-term stress can produce excessive amounts of the cortisol hormone, which is bad for you because it can irrevocably damage your body and your brain. The effects on the body include a host of health issues such as weight gain, mood swings, digestive issues, diabetes, cancer and heart disease; leaving you exhausted and run down.
The effects of stress and pressure on the brain are less well known but no less harmful.
FIVE WAYS YOUR BRAIN CAN BECOME DAMAGED
1. Visible changes to your behaviour that make you more forgetful, emotional and stressful!
Losing your memory by forgetting appointments and where you left the house keys may be a clear first sign because when you are stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken. At the same time you can become more emotional as stress strengthens areas in the brain associated with emotions. The cortisol stress hormone also creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety by reducing the size, activity level and number of neural connections in your brain, which makes you even more fearful, causing the cycle. At the same time you can become more depressed, the stress depletes the critical brain chemicals ‘neuro-transmitters’ which prevent depression. The heroes of the neuro-transmitters are Serotonin and Dopamine.
Serotonin is called the ‘happy molecule’ because it creates good moods, healthier appetites and better sleep patterns. Meanwhile, Dopamine is in charge of your pleasure-reward system and without it you become unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic, and depressed.
Chronic stress caused by too much cortisol destroys your happiness and peace of mind by wearing you down mentally and emotionally, and sapping the joy and pleasure from your life.
2. Stress kill brain cells by creating the ‘free radicals’ molecules
Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate, which conducts guerilla warfare on the brain by creating ‘free radicals’. These are unattached oxygen molecules that attack brain cells by puncturing their walls causing them to rupture and die. Free radicals love it even more when you can’t sleep properly or drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes to relax.
3. Stress halts the production of new brain cells
Every day you naturally lose brain cells but you create new ones through a protein called BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF keeps brain cells healthy and stimulates the growth of new ones, much in the same way as the fertilizer you put on the garden. However, cortisol halts the production of BDNF, resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed. Lower levels of BDNF are associated with brain-related conditions including depression, schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Chronic stress shrinks your brain
Stress measurably shrinks your brain because cortisol stops the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus. This is the part of your brain that stores memories and which is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation. Cortisol also shrinks the prefrontal cortex which negatively affects your decision making, working memory, and your control over impulsive behaviour.
5. Stress leaks toxins into your brain
Not surprisingly your brain is highly sensitive to toxins of every kind and is protected by a blood-brain barrier. This is a group of highly specialised cells that act as your brain’s gatekeeper, letting in the good nutrients but protecting your brain from harmful substances. However, stress punctures the barrier leaking in toxic chemicals which can cause brain infections and brain cancer.
The effects of stress and pressure on our brain are scary but there are ways we can beat it and tomorrow in Part Two of this post we examine 5 simple ways we can minimise stress and protect our brain.
5 Ways To Beat The Damage Stress And Pressure Does To Your Brain
It doesn’t have to be overly strenuous but regular walking, swimming or cycling are excellent because they boost the levels of BDNF. Brain derived neurotrophic factor “BDNF” are healthy brain cells which stimulate the growth of new ones, much in the same way as the fertilizer you put on the garden. Other exercises that help your mind as well as your body and brain include yoga, pilates and tai chi.
2. ADAPT YOUR DIET
Eating a diet higher in antioxidant rich foods like fruit, vegetables and dark chocolate (yay !!) can help stop the damage created by the free radicals. These ‘free radicals’ are unattached oxygen molecules that attack brain cells by puncturing their walls causing them to rupture and die. Drinking green tea instead of coffee or tea to avoid caffeine and removing alcohol and tobacco from your diet is also hugely beneficial in the battle against the free radicals.
3. SLEEP BETTER AND FOR LONGER
Sleep is amazingly restorative for the brain, making it sharper and more able to access memories and information. This is because sleep helps to replay and reinforce memory episodes in the hippocampus part of the brain without the distraction and dysfunction of the brain being awake and actively on call for processing.
4. LEARN TO MEDIATE
Meditating regularly, ideally for 30 minutes a day, is both simple and effective as a technique to reduce stress and enhance relaxation but it also has benefits for your brain. It is a proven way to keep your brain-and body – young by keeping telomeres (anti-aging DNA segments) long.
5. USE HERBAL REMEDIES
Using adaptogenic herbal remedies such as ginseng and artic root will increase the body and brain’s resilience to stress by promoting the balance between feeling calm and energetic.
The effects of chronic stress through cortisol are incredibly damaging to both the body and the brain but adopting some or all of the above will help reduce the wear and tear.