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Brain Drain: How Stress Affects Your Mind


January 29, 2020 | Published by

Stress itself is not necessarily problematic or harmful. We even experience a type of good stress called eustress. But when we experience stress in the long term, and our body creates more cortisol than it can release, that cortisol can begin to build up in the brain and have long-term effects.3

The short-term response to stress is essential for our survival. It is responsible for the “fight-or-flight” (also known as the acute stress response) which allows us to quickly respond to signs of danger.1

The acute stress that comes from being startled is part of the “fear center” of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala activates our stress response system, also known as the HPA Stress Axis.

Problems arise when stress becomes chronic, or your stresses are not something that be resolved by fighting or fleeing (like most modern stresses). Side effects of continued stress including chronic pain, frequent illness, decreased energy, and digestive issues2, but new research is revealing what kind of effects extreme stress can have on our brain. In the last year, more than one-third of adults have reported that their stress has increased over the past year, with 24% of adults reporting experiencing extreme stress.1

High cortisol levels resulting from chronic stress can, over time, wear down the brain’s power to function properly. Studies have shown there are multiple ways in which chronic stress impairs brain function. Its effects can result in loss of sociability and avoidance of interaction with others, negative effects on learning and memory functions, and even decreased brain size.1

Effects chronic stress can have on the brain

Stress Hurts Your Memory

A 2012 study showed that stress has a negative impact on spatial memory. This is our ability to recall information on the location of objects in the environment as well as spatial orientation. An additional 2014 study showed that high levels of cortisol lead to short-term memory declines in older rats. 3

Stress Kills Brain Cells

A study from the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science discovered that single socially stressful events could kill new neurons in the brain hippocampus, which is the region of the brain associated with memory, emotion, and learning. 3

Stress Changes the Brain’s Structure

The brain is made up of neurons and support cells referred to as “gray matter.” Gray matter is responsible for higher-order thinking such as decision-making as well as problem-solving.

The brain also contains what is known as “white matter,” which is made up of all the axons that connect with other regions of the brain to communicate. White matter is so named due to the fatty, white sheath known as myelin that surrounds the axons that speed up the electrical signals used to communicate information throughout the brain. 3

Researchers observed that chronic stress leads to myelin overproduction, which can actually lead to long-term changes in the brain’s structure. But while chronic stress can be a detriment to your brain structure, positive eustress can lead to stronger neural networks and greater resilience. 3

 Stress Shrinks the Brain

While many people associate negative outcomes to sudden, intense stress created by life-altering events, researchers suggest that it’s the everyday stress that, over time, can contribute to many mental disorders. 3

Studies show that exposure to stress, even very recent stress, led smaller gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain linked to things such as self-control and emotions. Though chronic, everyday stress appeared to have little impact on brain volume on its own but may make individuals more vulnerable to brain shrinkage when they are faced with intense, traumatic stressors. 3

Help your brain by reducing stress

“The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more challenging for these individuals to deal with future stress, particularly if the next demanding event requires effortful control, emotion regulation, or integrated social processing to overcome it,” explained the study’s lead author, Emily Ansell. 3

“Because stress changes the way the brain’s neurons communicate with each other, chronic stress can cause our brains, nervous systems, and our behavior to adjust to a vigilant and reactive state,” says Rockefeller University neuroscientist Bruce McEwen.4

 We can not only reduce excessive cortisol but also teach our brain better ways to deal with stress by trying the following5:

  • Reduce exposure to stressors
  • Do one thing at a time and finish it
  • Laugh and be happy
  • Find pleasure in the little things
  • Learn to have a more positive attitude
  • Reduce and better manage anxiety
  • Simplify and organize our life
  • Be more rational and less emotional
  • Develop supportive social relations


  1. Bernstein, R. The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain. Touro University Worldwide.
  2. Link, R. 11 Signs and Symptoms of Too Much Stress. Healthline.
  3. Cherry, K. 5 Surprising Ways That Stress Affects Your Brain. Verywellmind.
  4. Caldwell, A. The Neuroscience of Stress.



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  • Nix says:

    All of the examples above of how to reduce/deal better with stress are the same from every doctor and psychologist in the world; however, most people do not know to go about putting these things into place. Articles such as yours make it seem like it’s as easy as putting gas in your car but it’s not that simple to reduce stress in our lives. Wonder how many of you article writers really practice what you preach or are you just as stressed out as everyone else is.

    • Adrenal Fatigue Team says:

      Hi Nix,

      Thank you for writing. True, you will find many of the stress management tips given on many sites and by practitioners. The main reason for this is that these are methods proven to help better manage stress. Some of the tips are easier practiced than others, though all are worth the time to try. Do you feel like something is missing? We’d be happy to cover it in a future blog. We certainly experience stress just like everyone else, but we do our best to practice what we preach by doing our best to manage stress through these techniques and taking the supplements we recommend to our customers.

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