Chronic stress results in short- and long-term changes to your brain, which increase your risks of mental illness, addiction, and relapse. Understanding the neurological effects of stress can help you choose the care you need when facing stress-induced life challenges.
Stress Can Kill Brain Cells
The hippocampus is the part of your brain that is associated with both emotions and your ability to learn. Another critical role of the hippocampus is that it is one of only two places in the brain where the formation of new brain cells (neurogenesis) occurs.
When studying young rats, researchers found that their stress levels went up when they were exposed to aggression from older rats. The stress-exposed rats continued producing the same number of neurons as the control group rats. However, many of those new neurons died within a week. The initial stressor didn’t hamper neuron production, but rather neuron survival. Because rats are considered analogous to humans, this rat study indicates a potential consequence of chronic agitation: brain cell death.
Stress Can Change Brain Structure
Your brain is made up of white matter and gray matter. Gray matter is comprised of neurons and other cells that contribute to things like problem-solving. White matter is home to the axons connecting various brain parts to help them communicate. These axons are covered in a white sheath called myelin. The myelin sheath helps speed up brain signals.
Researchers at Berkeley University found that chronic stress can lead to a build-up of myelin. This, in turn, leads to changes in the balance between white and gray matter and interruptions in neural networks. Imbalances in white and gray matter are seen in people with mental health issues such as PTSD.
Stress Can Cause Memory Problems
When you feel overwhelmed, your sympathetic nervous system kicks into action by releasing noradrenaline and adrenaline. The axis made up of your hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (HPA axis) is also triggered. This results in the release of glucocorticoids. These different brain parts work together to form the fight-or-flight response when you are stressed.
Being under severe or chronic stress interferes with these normal brain functions. The HPA axis can be triggered to release levels of glucocorticoids that research shows affect memory retrieval. Researchers have found these results in both adults and children.
Increased Risk of Substance Use and Relapse
In a review of preclinical, clinical, and population studies, researchers found that highly stressful situations and chronic stress lead to a higher risk of substance use and relapse. Exposure to stressors in early life and accumulated stress lead to neuroendocrine, physiological, and behavioral changes that can be long-lasting.
To counteract the effects of this stress and change the direction of behaviors, researchers recommend using behavioral therapy, complementary treatments, and certain medications to help your brain stay balanced.
Get a Professional Evaluation and Treatment Plan
Understanding how stress affects your health and different parts of your body can help you make the decision to seek treatment from compassionate professionals. At Recovery Without Walls, we take a holistic approach to treating stress, chronic pain, and substance use. We will develop a personalized evaluation and treatment plan just for you, so we can treat your mind, body, and spirit and get you back on the road to a happy, healthy life.