How Stress Damages Our Brain

Posted on: September 16th, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

Do you think that stress impacts your mental health? It turns out the answer is both yes and no. It is not the stress that hurts your health but rather how you respond to stimulants that could stress you. What do I mean? If your car breaks down it’s what you choose to do next that counts. You could become extremely upset or you could try to stay cool, and look at it as a minor diversion in your day.

Scientists have worked out getting stressed contributes to mental health decline, so it is in your interest to avoid being stressed. And the older you get the more susceptible you are to mental decline if you become stressed. Older people’s brains are particularly vulnerable to degeneration if they react to daily annoyances with negative emotions such as sadness, anger, irritation or anxiety. Letting the minor setbacks NOT distress you actually preserves your brain.

Stress takes a bigger toll on our brains as we age

A new study by Oregon State University has followed the brain health of 111 people for 65 to 95 years for two-and-a-half years.  The study has been published in the ‘Psychosomatic  Medicine’ journal.

Lead author is Dr Robert Stawski, Associate Professor in the School of Health at Oregon State University.

“It’s not how many stressors you have, but how these stressors impact you emotionally that’s important for the brain,” A/Prof Stawski explains in a statement from the university.

For the experiment, the study participants had to look at a series of two rows of numbers and were asked whether the same numbers appeared in two rows, regardless of order. The participants were timed. Success in this exercise gives a good indication of mental focus, cognitive aging and risk of dementia as well as structural and functional brain changes reflecting poor brain health. Each participant completed the exercise about 30 times during the two-and-a-half years the study ran.

The participants were asked about stressors during their day and the researchers interviewed the participants family members about their stress levels. Participants also rated how they felt at the moment from choices ranging from negative to positive. Participants also described how they felt physically.

Respond negatively and you damage your brain

The researchers found people who responded to stressors with negative emotions did not score well in the number remembering exercise. This suggests worse mental health among the people who reacted negatively to potentially stressful events.

The researchers also found that striking differences emerged between the participants as they aged. People who reacted negatively to life’s stressors had worse cognitive performance as they moved deeper into their late seventies, eighties and nineties.

In contrast, people in their sixties and early seventies who responded negatively to stress did not suffer the same mental decline as older people. Researchers concluded that as we age our ability to withstand stress diminishes, or stress becomes more damaging to brain health as we get older.

“These relatively younger people may have a more active lifestyle to begin with, more social and professional engagement, which could sharpen their mental functioning,” Dr Stawski said.

Dr Stawski says the take-out message of the study is that we should try to reduce our stress levels as we age.

“People’s daily emotions and how they respond emotionally to their stressors are important contributors to our cognitive health,” Dr Stawski said.

Learn stress reducing techniques

He says as we age we should be aware of their reactions to stressful events and learn some stress-reducing techniques to preserve their brain health over time.

 “We can’t get rid of daily stressors completely,” Dr Stawski says, “but giving people the skills to weather stressors when they happen could improve their brain health in old age.”

The researchers also found that when people reported more positive emotions their performance in the number exercise improved, regardless of their age, meaning it’s in the interest of brain health to be happy.

Not the first study to find that stress hurts the brain

This is not the first study to find that stress hurts brain functioning. Other studies have looked at the effect of stress and cortisol on the brain. When we are stressed our body produces the chemical or hormone cortisol. This is fine in the short term, but not so fine long term. When chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. High levels of cortisol can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. According to several studies, chronic stress impairs brain function in multiple ways. It can disrupt synapse regulation, resulting in the loss of sociability and the avoidance of interactions with others. Stress can also kill brain cells and even reduce the size of the brain. Chronic stress has a shrinking effect on the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

Harvard investigates stress on the brain

The Harvard Medical School has also looked at how stress affects the brain. The researchers looked at participants with an average age of 49 and no diagnosis of dementia. The researchers gave each participant a psychological exam. They also assessed the participants’ memory and thinking then they assessed these again eight years later.

At the start of the study, all the volunteers provided blood samples. The researchers measured participants’ levels of blood cortisol, which is a hormone released chiefly in response to stress. After assessing cortisol levels, the investigators divided the participants into groups according to their results. They categorized participants as having high, middle, or low levels of cortisol.

The researchers found that people with high levels of blood cortisol had much poorer memory when compared with peers with normal cortisol levels. Importantly, impaired memory was present before obvious symptoms of memory loss began eight years later

Reduce your stress

Also, 2,018 participants agreed to undergo MRI scans, so that the researchers could measure their brain volumes. This allowed researchers to confirm that people with high cortisol levels also tended to have lower total brain volumes (smaller brains).

The research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show. It’s important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed. All these studies have the same message, stress is bad for brain health and it puts you at higher risk of developing dementia. What should we learn from these studies? We need to learn to chill out, relax, not get upset, and not let it get to us. Put simply, don’t worry and be happy if you want to have a healthy brain in old age.


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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