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Experts believe certain activities—including exercise—can offset the response to stress set in motion by the brain, and minimize neural damage. (Shutterstock/File)
Myriad physical and emotional disorders have been linked to the incidence of stress.
Read below to learn how stress impacts your brain, and what you can do to reduce stress as compiled by Reader's Digest.
Effects of stress
Your brain doesn’t learn as well
Neurons develop from neural stem sells in the hippocampus, a structure vital for learning and memory. Under chronic stress, these stem cells undergo an alternate differentiation pathway, forming oligodendrocytes, which coat existing neutrons with an insulting material known as myelin.
According to research in rats and cellular models conducted by scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, the excess of myelin that develops as a result alters how neutrons connect with each other, consequently perturbing the balance of communication and timing within the brain’s circuitry.
“Ultimately, these changes can affect cognitive function, including changes in learning, memory, and emotional well-being,” says Sundari Chetty, PhD, a faculty member in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford School of Medicine and co-author of the 2014 paper presenting these findings in Molecular Psychiatry.
She reported that significant alterations in myelination have been observed in an array of neurological conditions and have the potential to contribute to mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you find your memory or concentration faltering, this could portend an imminent emotional breakdown.
Read also: Signs your child is stressed
Greater stroke risk
Studies have found that high levels of stress correlate with the incidence of strokes. In one study published in Stroke, over 6,700 adults between the ages 45 and 84 were rated based on questionnaires they had filled, about psychological factors such as stress and depression. Eleven years later, those rated the most stressed were found to be more likely to have suffered a stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA).
In a statement, study author Susan Everson-Rose, PhD, MPH said: “There’s such a focus on traditional risk factors—cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking, and so forth—and those are all very important, but studies like this one show that psychological characteristics are equally important”.
Higher risk of depression
Studies conducted by National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) scientists demonstrated that mice unable to generate new neurons in the hippocampus had decreased ability to rebound from stressful episodes and exhibited symptoms of depression. Published in Nature in 2011, the research was based on a series of tests where mice were placed in stressful situations.
“I think the findings fit well with the idea that stress can cause depression or that stressful situations can precipitate depression,” study author Heather Cameron, PhD, chief of neuroplasticity at the NIMH told Time.
Read also: Five signs you are way too stressed
The grey matter in your brain shrinks
Anxiety that results from events such as the loss of a home or a loved one can reduce grey matter in parts of the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for self control and emotion, according to a study published in 2012 in Biological Psychiatry by Yale University researchers.
“The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more challenging for these individuals to deal with future stress,” Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry and study author said in a statement from Yale.
The study showed how MRI scans of 103 healthy individuals revealed a reduction in grey matter as a result of a variety of stressors.
How to calm down
Know the effects of stress are reversible
Now, onto the good news: it has been found that the brain has a natural ability to recover from stress. The brain—the hippocampus, especially—has a high degree of plasticity, meaning that upon the removal of a stressor, neural stem cells regain their ability to differentiate into neurons.
Read also: Dogs and kids can be a stress-busting duo
Experts believe that certain activities—including exercise—can offset the response to stress set in motion by the brain, and minimize neural damage. Physical exercise could reduce or prevent surges in stress hormones, therefore reducing brain damage.
According to the NIMH, just 30 minutes of gentle walking everyday can help improve mood and lower stress.
A Carnegie Mellon University study revealed that the positive effects of meditation, including the alleviation of stress, can be experienced fairly quickly.
Research conducted in 2014 found that adults aged 18 to 30 who participated in a mindfulness meditation training program for just 25 minutes three days in a row later reported less anxiety during stress-provoking tasks than another group that did not participate in meditation.
Deprivation of sleep elevates stress hormones and can have adverse effects on areas of the brain, including the hippocampus. Try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule throughout the week; avoid heavy meals, cigarettes and alcohol in the evening; and make sure your bedroom is relatively cool and free from noise and bright lights.
These tips can help you achieve prolonged hours of sleep, which is key to controlling levels of stress hormones. (afr/kes)