What does stress do?

Generally speaking, stress means pressure or strain. Life constantly subjects us to pressures. In people, stress can be physical (as in having disease), emotional (as in feeling grief), or psychological (as in being afraid).

Genes and things that happen to you early in life, even when in the womb, can affect how you handle stressful situations. Overeating, smoking, drinking, and not exercising, which are often reactions to being under stress, can add to the negative health effects of stress.

What is the stress response?

Allostasis is the process of how the body responds to stress, whether it is acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term).

The best-known acute stress response is the “fight or flight” reaction that happens when you feel threatened. In this case, the stress response causes the body to release several stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline (also known as epinephrine), into the bloodstream. These hormones increase your concentration, ability to react, and strength. Also, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, and your immune system and memory are sharper. After you have dealt with the short-term stress, your body returns to normal.

Chronic or long-term stress, however, poses a problem. If you frequently face challenges, your body is constantly producing higher levels of stress hormones and does not have time to recover. These hormones over time can cause serious health problems.

How does chronic stress affect your health?

The bodily changes that happen during moments of stress can be very helpful when they happen for a short time. But when this happens for a long period of time, producing too many stress hormones can affect your health. Health problems can include:

Digestive system

Stomach pains, due to a slow-down in the rate that the stomach empties after eating; also diarrhea due to more activity in the colon.


Increase in appetite, which can lead to weight gain. Being overweight or obese puts you at risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Immune system

Weakened immune system so that you are more likely to have colds or other infections.

Anxiety, depression, loss of sleep, and lack of interest in physical activity. Memory and decision-making can also be affected.

Cardiovascular system

Increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and the level of fats in your blood (cholesterol and triglycerides). Also, increase in blood glucose levels, especially in the evening, and appetite. All of these are risk factors for heart disease, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), stroke, obesity, and diabetes.

How do you know when you’re stressed out?

When you experience short-term stress, you may feel anxious, nervous, distracted, worried, and pressured. If your stress level increases or lasts for a longer time, you might experience other physical or emotional effects:

  • Fatigue, depression
  • Chest pain or pressure, fast heartbeat
  • Dizziness, shakiness, difficulty breathing
  • Irregular menstrual periods, erectile dysfunction (impotence), loss of libido (sex drive)

These symptoms may also lead to loss of appetite, overeating, and poor sleep, all of which can have serious effects on your health. Usually symptoms are minor and may be relieved through coping skills such as learning to relax, removing yourself for a time from the things that stress you out, and exercising. If the symptoms are severe, however, you may need medical help to find the source of your stress and the best way to manage it.

What can you do to reduce stress?

You can take practical steps to cut back on stress. Regular, moderate exercise improves thought process and mood. Other strategies include relaxing, getting a good night’s sleep, and seeking emotional support from family and friends. You can also reduce the long-term effects of chronic stress by eating a healthy, low-fat diet and avoiding smoking and drinking too much alcohol. However, if your symptoms continue or get worse, you should see your doctor.

Questions to ask your doctor/healthcare team

  • Are my health problems being caused by stress?
  • What can I do to lower the stress I’m feeling?
  • What type of exercise is best for me?
  • What else can I do to stay healthy?

Understanding the stress response

Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health

Updated: May 1, 2018Published: March, 2011

A stressful situation — whether something environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or psychological, such as persistent worry about losing a job — can trigger a cascade of stress hormones that produce well-orchestrated physiological changes. A stressful incident can make the heart pound and breathing quicken. Muscles tense and beads of sweat appear.

This combination of reactions to stress is also known as the “fight-or-flight” response because it evolved as a survival mechanism, enabling people and other mammals to react quickly to life-threatening situations. The carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes and physiological responses helps someone to fight the threat off or flee to safety. Unfortunately, the body can also overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, work pressure, and family difficulties.

Over the years, researchers have learned not only how and why these reactions occur, but have also gained insight into the long-term effects chronic stress has on physical and psychological health. Over time, repeated activation of the stress response takes a toll on the body. Research suggests that chronic stress contributes to high blood pressure, promotes the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and causes brain changes that may contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction. More preliminary research suggests that chronic stress may also contribute to obesity, both through direct mechanisms (causing people to eat more) or indirectly (decreasing sleep and exercise).

Sounding the alarm

The stress response begins in the brain (see illustration). When someone confronts an oncoming car or other danger, the eyes or ears (or both) send the information to the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing. The amygdala interprets the images and sounds. When it perceives danger, it instantly sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus.

Command center

When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus. This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.

The hypothalamus is a bit like a command center. This area of the brain communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system, which controls such involuntary body functions as breathing, blood pressure, heartbeat, and the dilation or constriction of key blood vessels and small airways in the lungs called bronchioles. The autonomic nervous system has two components, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system functions like a gas pedal in a car. It triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers. The parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake. It promotes the “rest and digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.

After the amygdala sends a distress signal, the hypothalamus activates the sympathetic nervous system by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands. These glands respond by pumping the hormone epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) into the bloodstream. As epinephrine circulates through the body, it brings on a number of physiological changes. The heart beats faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles, heart, and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up. The person undergoing these changes also starts to breathe more rapidly. Small airways in the lungs open wide. This way, the lungs can take in as much oxygen as possible with each breath. Extra oxygen is sent to the brain, increasing alertness. Sight, hearing, and other senses become sharper. Meanwhile, epinephrine triggers the release of blood sugar (glucose) and fats from temporary storage sites in the body. These nutrients flood into the bloodstream, supplying energy to all parts of the body.

All of these changes happen so quickly that people aren’t aware of them. In fact, the wiring is so efficient that the amygdala and hypothalamus start this cascade even before the brain’s visual centers have had a chance to fully process what is happening. That’s why people are able to jump out of the path of an oncoming car even before they think about what they are doing.

As the initial surge of epinephrine subsides, the hypothalamus activates the second component of the stress response system — known as the HPA axis. This network consists of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands.

The HPA axis relies on a series of hormonal signals to keep the sympathetic nervous system — the “gas pedal” — pressed down. If the brain continues to perceive something as dangerous, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which travels to the pituitary gland, triggering the release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). This hormone travels to the adrenal glands, prompting them to release cortisol. The body thus stays revved up and on high alert. When the threat passes, cortisol levels fall. The parasympathetic nervous system — the “brake” — then dampens the stress response.

Techniques to counter chronic stress

Many people are unable to find a way to put the brakes on stress. Chronic low-level stress keeps the HPA axis activated, much like a motor that is idling too high for too long. After a while, this has an effect on the body that contributes to the health problems associated with chronic stress.

Persistent epinephrine surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and raising risk of heart attacks or strokes. Elevated cortisol levels create physiological changes that help to replenish the body’s energy stores that are depleted during the stress response. But they inadvertently contribute to the buildup of fat tissue and to weight gain. For example, cortisol increases appetite, so that people will want to eat more to obtain extra energy. It also increases storage of unused nutrients as fat.

Fortunately, people can learn techniques to counter the stress response.

Relaxation response. Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, has devoted much of his career to learning how people can counter the stress response by using a combination of approaches that elicit the relaxation response. These include deep abdominal breathing, focus on a soothing word (such as peace or calm), visualization of tranquil scenes, repetitive prayer, yoga, and tai chi.

Most of the research using objective measures to evaluate how effective the relaxation response is at countering chronic stress have been conducted in people with hypertension and other forms of heart disease. Those results suggest the technique may be worth trying — although for most people it is not a cure-all. For example, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a double-blind, randomized controlled trial of 122 patients with hypertension, ages 55 and older, in which half were assigned to relaxation response training and the other half to a control group that received information about blood pressure control. After eight weeks, 34 of the people who practiced the relaxation response — a little more than half — had achieved a systolic blood pressure reduction of more than 5 mm Hg, and were therefore eligible for the next phase of the study, in which they could reduce levels of blood pressure medication they were taking. During that second phase, 50% were able to eliminate at least one blood pressure medication — significantly more than in the control group, where only 19% eliminated their medication.

Physical activity. People can use exercise to stifle the buildup of stress in several ways. Exercise, such as taking a brisk walk shortly after feeling stressed, not only deepens breathing but also helps relieve muscle tension. Movement therapies such as yoga, tai chi, and qi gong combine fluid movements with deep breathing and mental focus, all of which can induce calm.

Social support. Confidants, friends, acquaintances, co-workers, relatives, spouses, and companions all provide a life-enhancing social net — and may increase longevity. It’s not clear why, but the buffering theory holds that people who enjoy close relationships with family and friends receive emotional support that indirectly helps to sustain them at times of chronic stress and crisis.

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Stress and your health

Stress is a normal feeling. There are two main types of stress:

  • Acute stress. This is short-term stress that goes away quickly. You feel it when you slam on the brakes, have a fight with your partner, or ski down a steep slope. It helps you manage dangerous situations. It also occurs when you do something new or exciting. All people have acute stress at one time or another.
  • Chronic stress. This is stress that lasts for a longer period of time. You may have chronic stress if you have money problems, an unhappy marriage, or trouble at work. Any type of stress that goes on for weeks or months is chronic stress. You can become so used to chronic stress that you don’t realize it is a problem. If you don’t find ways to manage stress, it may lead to health problems.


Your body reacts to stress by releasing hormones. These hormones make your brain more alert, cause your muscles to tense, and increase your pulse. In the short term, these reactions are good because they can help you handle the situation causing stress. This is your body’s way of protecting itself.

When you have chronic stress, your body stays alert, even though there is no danger. Over time, this puts you at risk for health problems, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Skin problems, such as acne or eczema
  • Menstrual problems

If you already have a health condition, chronic stress can make it worse.


Stress can cause many types of physical and emotional symptoms. Sometimes, you may not realize these symptoms are caused by stress. Here are some signs that stress may be affecting you:

  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Forgetfulness
  • Frequent aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Lack of energy or focus
  • Sexual problems
  • Stiff jaw or neck
  • Tiredness
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Upset stomach
  • Use of alcohol or drugs to relax
  • Weight loss or gain

What happens to your body when you are stressed?

Each and every one of us experiences stress. Whether you are late for work, got stuck in traffic, are attending an interview or are sick, stress is a part and parcel of our day-to-day lifestyle. Stress in the short term can help you to cope with potentially serious situations such as meeting a tight deadline or avoiding an accident as it triggers your fight and flight response. However, too much stress can wear you down and affect you both physically and mentally. But what exactly is stress? What happens to your body when you are stressed? What are the effects of stress on your body? Well, here are all your queries on stress and its role in the body answered.
What is stress?
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is any uncomfortable emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes. This means that when you get stressed, various hormonal and chemical reactions occur in the body which can affect the way you think, behave and respond to a particular situation.

In simple terms, stress is the body’s normal response to any situation. When you are stressed, there are numerous hormonal changes that occur in the body, which helps the body to cope with the situation. This chemical reaction is known as the fight-and-flight response.
What happens to your body when you are stressed?
So if you are threatened or are stressed suddenly, the hypothalamus, which is a gland situated in the brain, sends out a signal to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are part of the body’s natural mechanism to prepare you to fight stress and increase your chances of survival.
Adrenaline increases your heartbeat, breathing rate, and muscle activity. Cortisol, which is the primary stress hormone, increases the glucose production, helps the brain use glucose effectively, alters immune response, enhances tissue repair, and affects your mood, fear, and motivation. This response helps you to react quickly to stressful situations. However, when you are stressed for a longer period, the cortisol levels stay high for too long which in turn can have a negative effect on the body.
Chronic stress can cause a variety of symptoms such as irritability, headache, anxiety, and fatigue along with affecting your overall well being. It can also increase your risk of various health problems such as:
-Brain fog (problems with focusing, learning, and memory)
-Weakened immune system
What are the effects of stress on your body?
Most of us are aware of the effects of stress on our mood, emotions, and behaviors. However, very less is know about the negative impact of stress on key organs and systems of the body. Here is a brief on the effects of stress on the body and how different organs react to stress.
Nervous system: When you are stressed, either physically or mentally, the body diverts all its energy to fight the perceived threat. It triggers a flight and fight response and releases hormones which help control stress. Once the situation is under control, the nervous system usually returns to normal. However, if the stressor fails to go away or if you are under constant stress, then the response will continue. This, in the long run, can lead to various behaviors such as overeating, not eating enough, alcohol dependence or social withdrawal.
Respiratory system: During stress, the release of adrenaline causes you to breathe faster so as to improve the supply of oxygen-rich blood to other parts of the body. But if you are suffering from a breathing problem or respiratory disorder such as asthma, it can further aggravate the condition. Stress can not only make it difficult to breathe but also increase the risk of panic attacks due to rapid breathing (or hyperventilation).
Cardiovascular system: When stressed, it increases your heartbeat and lead to stronger contractions of the heart muscle. As a result, the blood vessels that supply blood to the large muscles and the heart become dilated. This, in turn, increases the amount of blood pumped to the other parts of the body and also raises your blood pressure. Chronic stress not only causes your heart to work hard for a long time but can also increase the risk of inflammation of the coronary arteries. This, in turn, can put you at risk of heart attack or stroke.

Digestive system: Stress can affect your appetite and the normal functioning of the gastrointestinal tract. It can cause you to eat less or more than you usually do, which in turn can up the risk of acidity or heartburn. The rapid surge of hormones and heartbeat can increase the level of stomach acid. Stress also affects the movement of food through the intestine, leading to nausea, diarrhea or constipation. If you also suffer from a stomach infection or gastric ulcer, being stressed can further worsen the condition.
Musculoskeletal system: Under stress, your muscles contract to protect you from an injury. But if you are stressed for a long time, the muscle may remain contracted for an extended period and this may affect its ability to relax, which in turn affects the proper functioning of the muscles. This, in the long run, can cause a headache, back pain, body ache, etc.
Endocrine system: The role of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol to deal with stress is known. However, these hormones also act on the adrenal glands and the liver. The release of adrenaline and cortisol cause an increase in the production of glucose and inhibition of insulin secretion to provide energy in the case of emergency. But if you are under chronic stress, the body may fail to utilize the excess of glucose and may increase the risk of diabetes.
Reproductive system: The excess amount of cortisol can affect the normal functioning of the reproductive system in both men and women. Chronic stress in men can affect the production of the hormone testosterone, which in turn can interfere with sperm production and increase your risk of erectile dysfunction. In women, stress can cause irregular menstruation or more painful periods. It can not only worsen the symptoms of menopause but also lowers sexual desire in women.
Immune system: Acute stress stimulates the immune system which helps you to fight infection and enhance the healing of wounds. But over time, the hormones can affect the body’s response to the foreign particles and affect the proper functioning of the immune system. This is the reason why people who are under chronic stress are more prone to infections such as cold and flu. Moreover, it can prolong your recovery from an injury or illness.
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Lalit Kanodia, General Physician)
Disclaimer: “This article is authored and provided by The Times of India Healthy India Fit India partner, 1mg.com”

Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017 Jul 21;16:1057-1072.
Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015 Nov 1;1(3):FSO23.
Tsigos C, Kyrou I, Kassi E, et al. Stress, Endocrine Physiology and Pathophysiology. In: De Groot LJ, Chrousos G, Dungan K, et al., editors. Endotext. South Dartmouth (MA): MDText.com, Inc.; 2000.
Liu YZ, Wang YX, Jiang CL. Inflammation: The Common Pathway of Stress-Related Diseases. Front Hum Neurosci. 2017 Jun 20;11:316.
McEwen BS. Neurobiological and Systemic Effects of Chronic Stress. Chronic Stress (Thousand Oaks). 2017 Jan-Dec;1.
Beery AK, Kaufer D. Stress, social behavior, and resilience: insights from rodents. Neurobiol Stress. 2015 Jan 1;1:116-127.

We all feel stressed from time to time – it’s all part of the emotional ups and downs of life. Stress has many sources, it can come from our environment, from our bodies, or our own thoughts and how we view the world around us. It is very natural to feel stressed around moments of pressure such as exam time – but we are physiologically designed to deal with stress, and react to it.

When we feel under pressure the nervous system instructs our bodies to release stress hormones including adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. These produce physiological changes to help us cope with the threat or danger we see to be upon us. This is called the “stress response” or the “fight-or-flight” response.

Stress can actually be positive, as the stress response help us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the body rebalances and we start to feel calm again. But when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems will arise. Continuous activation of the nervous system – experiencing the “stress response” – causes wear and tear on the body.

When we are stressed, the respiratory system is immediately affected. We tend to breathe harder and more quickly in an effort to quickly distribute oxygen-rich blood around our body. Although this is not an issue for most of us, it could be a problem for people with asthma who may feel short of breath and struggle to take in enough oxygen. It can also cause quick and shallow breathing, where minimal air is taken in, which can lead to hyperventilation. This is more likely if someone is prone to anxiety and panic attacks.

Stress wreaks havoc on our immune systems. Cortisol released in our bodies suppresses the immune system and inflammatory pathways, and we become more susceptible to infections and chronic inflammatory conditions. Our ability to fight off illness is reduced.

The musculoskeletal system is also affected. Our muscles tense up, which is the body’s natural way of protecting ourselves from injury and pain. Repeated muscle tension can cause bodily aches and pains, and when it occurs in the shoulders, neck and head it may result in tension headaches and migraines.

Stress can lead to migraines. (www..com)

There are cardiovascular effects. When stress is acute (in the moment), heart rate and blood pressure increase, but they return to normal once the acute stress has passed. If acute stress is repeatedly experienced, or if stress becomes chronic (over a long period of time) it can cause damage to blood vessels and arteries. This increases the risk for hypertension, heart attack or stroke.

The endocrine system also suffers. This system plays an important role in regulating mood, growth and development, tissue function, metabolism and reproductive processes. Our metabolism is affected. The hypothalamus is located in the brain and it plays a key role in connecting the endocrine system with the nervous system. Stress signals coming from the hypothalamus trigger the release of stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine, and then blood sugar (glucose) is produced by the liver to provide you with energy to deal with the stressful situation. Most people reabsorb the extra blood sugar when the stress subsides, but for some people there is an increased risk of diabetes.

Stress can have some unpleasant gastrointestinal effects. We might experience heartburn and acid reflux especially if we have changed our eating habits to eat more or less, or increased our consumption of fatty and sugary foods. The ability of our intestines to absorb nutrients from our food may be reduced. We may experience stomach pain, bloating and nausea, diarrhoea or constipation.

There can be problems with our reproductive systems too. For men, chronic stress may affect the production of testosterone and sperm. It may even lead to erectile dysfunction or impotence. Women can experience changes to their menstrual cycles and increased premenstrual symptoms.


Stress has marked effects on our emotional well-being. It is normal to experience high and low moods in our daily lives, but when we are stressed we may feel more tired, have mood swings or feel more irritable than usual. Stress causes hyperarousal, which means we may have difficulty falling or staying asleep and experience restless nights. This impairs concentration, attention, learning and memory, all of which are particularly important around exam time. Researchers have linked poor sleep to chronic health problems, depression and even obesity.

Losing sleep affects your ability to learn. (www..com)

The way that we cope with stress has an additional, indirect effect on our health. Under pressure, people may adopt more harmful habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or taking drugs to relieve stress. But these behaviours are inappropriate ways to adapt and only lead to more health problems and risks to our personal safety and well-being.

So learn to manage your stress, before it manages you. It’s all about keeping it in check. Some stress in life is normal – and a little stress can help us to feel alert, motivated, focused, energetic and even excited. Take positive actions to channel this energy effectively and you may find yourself performing better, achieving more and feeling good.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Holly Blake, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science, University of Nottingham

The Mind and Mental Health: How Stress Affects the Brain

Stress continues to be a major American health issue, according to the American Psychological Association. More than one-third of adults report that their stress increased over the past year. Twenty-four percent of adults report experiencing extreme stress, up from 18 percent the year before.

It’s well-known that stress can be a detriment to overall health. But can stress actually change the physiology of the brain? Science says yes.

Defining Stress

The National Institute of Mental Health defines stress as simply “the brain’s response to any demand.” Given that definition, not all stress is bad. It is simply a response. How harmful it ultimately depends on its intensity, duration and treatment.

Stress takes a variety of forms. Some stress happens as the result of a single, short-term event — having an argument with a loved one, for example. Other stress happens due to recurring conditions, such as managing a long-term illness or a demanding job. When recurring conditions cause stress that is both intense and sustained over a long period of time, it can be referred to as “chronic” or “toxic” stress. While all stress triggers physiological reactions, chronic stress is specifically problematic because of the significant harm it can do to the functioning of the body and the brain.

Leading Causes of Stress

Stress occurs for a number of reasons. The 2015 Stress in America survey reported that money and work were the top two sources of stress for adults in the United States for the eighth year in a row. Other common contributors included family responsibilities, personal health concerns, health problems affecting the family and the economy.

The study found that women consistently struggle with more stress than men. Millennials and Generation Xers deal with more stress than baby boomers. And those who face discrimination based on characteristics such as race, disability status or LGBT identification struggle with more stress than their counterparts who do not regularly encounter such societal biases.

Physiological Effects of Stress on the Brain

Stress is a chain reaction. “When someone experiences a stressful event, the amygdala, an area of the brain that contributes to emotional processing, sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus,” Harvard Health Publications of Harvard Medical School explains. “This area of the brain functions like a command center, communicating with the rest of the body through the nervous system so that the person has the energy to fight or flee.”

This “fight-or-flight” response is responsible for the outward physical reactions most people associate with stress including increased heart rate, heightened senses, a deeper intake of oxygen and the rush of adrenaline. Finally, a hormone called cortisol is released, which helps to restore the energy lost in the response. When the stressful event is over, cortisol levels fall and the body returns to stasis.

Effects of Chronic Stress on the Brain

While stress itself is not necessarily problematic, the buildup of cortisol in the brain can have long-term effects. Thus, chronic stress can lead to health problems.

Cortisol’s functions are part of the natural process of the body. In moderation, the hormone is perfectly normal and healthy. Its functions are multiple, explains the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science. In addition to restoring balance to the body after a stress event, cortisol helps regulate blood sugar levels in cells and has utilitarian value in the hippocampus, where memories are stored and processed.

But when chronic stress is experienced, the body makes more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This is when cortisol and stress can lead to trouble. 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 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.

While stress can shrink the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala, which can make the brain more receptive to stress. “Cortisol is believed to create a domino effect that hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala in a way that might create a vicious cycle by creating a brain that becomes predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight,” Christopher Bergland writes in Psychology Today.

Effects of Stress on the Body

Chronic stress doesn’t just lead to impaired cognitive function. It can also lead to other significant problems, such as increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. Other systems of the body stop working properly too, including the digestive, excretory and reproductive structures. Toxic stress can impair the body’s immune system and exacerbate any already existing illnesses.

Plasticity and the Brain: The Body’s Recovery System

Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the ways that neural pathways are able to re-form in the brain. It’s true that these pathways — like the one between the hippocampus and the amygdala — can get severely damaged due to constant exposure to stress, but such changes are not necessarily permanent. While stress can negatively affect the brain, the brain and body can recover.

Young adults, especially, are able to recover from the effects of stress, according to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Age has a direct correlation with the reversibility of stress-related damage. It’s much more difficult for older adults to regain or create new neural pathways than their younger counterparts.

That’s not to say all hope is lost for older adults. PNAS points out that “interventions,” or activities that combat stress’ wear-and-tear on the brain, are effective regardless of age. Interventions including activities like exercising regularly, socializing and finding purpose in life enable plasticity.

It can seem like stress is an inevitable part of life, but chronic stress can have real and significant consequences on the brain. Understanding these effects and how to combat them can help promote overall health.

Understanding How Stress Affects the Brain

Professionals working in health and human services or psychology have the opportunity to help others manage their stress effectively and understand how stress affects the brain. Touro University Worldwide offers a variety of fully online degree programs at the bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral level that prepare students for careers in these fields.

How does stress affect the brain?

Regular exposure to stress can impact our physical and mental health, but how does it actually affect our brains? One new Harvard Medical School study answers that question.

Share on PinterestAccording to new research, high levels of stress hormones can impact how well the brain functions.

Stress — especially when we experience it on a regular basis — takes a significant toll on our minds and bodies.

It can make us feel more irritable and constantly tired, and it impacts our ability to focus.

Chronic stress can also interfere with our sleep patterns, appetite, and libido, and it can also exacerbate a range of health conditions.

These include diabetes, heart disease, and gastrointestinal problems.

One study that Medical News Today covered earlier this year, in fact, saw that even minor levels of distress can increase a person’s risk of chronic disease.

What impact does stress have on the brain in physiological and cognitive terms? Researchers from Harvard Medical School in Boston, MA, have explored this question and reported their answer in the journal Neurology.

The stress hormone affects memory

In their study, the researchers worked with participants with an average age of 49 and no diagnosis of dementia.

At baseline, the investigators asked each participant to undergo a psychological exam. They also assessed each participant’s memory and thinking abilities. For the purpose of the study, they assessed these abilities again after an average period of 8 years.

Furthermore, at the beginning of the study, all the volunteers provided blood samples. The team collected them in the morning, after an appropriate fasting period, so that the blood test results would be accurate.

Specifically, the researchers were interested in measuring the 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, where middle levels corresponded to the normal cortisol level range of 10.8–15.8 micrograms per deciliter.

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 in these individuals even before obvious symptoms of memory loss set in.

These results remained consistent even after the investigators had adjusted for relevant modifying factors, such as age, sex, smoking habit, and body mass index (BMI).

“Cortisol affects many different functions,” notes study author Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, from Harvard Medical School, “so it is important to fully investigate how high levels of the hormone may affect the brain.”

It is ‘important to find ways to reduce stress’

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

Those in the high-cortisol group had an average total cerebral brain volume of 88.5 percent of total cranial volume versus 88.7 percent of total cranial volume in people with regular cortisol levels.

As for low cortisol levels, the researchers found no links at all between this and a person’s memory or their brain volume.

“Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show,” says Dr. Echouffo-Tcheugui.

“o 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.”

Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui

“It’s important for physicians to counsel all people with higher cortisol levels,” he adds. Still, the researchers admit that their study does have some limitations — such as the fact that they only measured the participants’ blood cortisol levels once, which may not be representative of their long-term exposure to this hormone.

Moreover, they note that most of the study participants were of European descent, which means that the findings may not accurately reflect the effects of stress on other populations.

Long-Term Effects Of Chronic Stress on Body and Mind

Everyone knows that chronic stress is bad. But just how bad can it be? Tallying the negative effects of long-term chronic stress is quite an eye-opener. Prolonged stress can not only shorten your life, but also seriously erode the quality of the life you live. Here’s how.

Prolonged stress leads to memory loss.

When stress is sustained over a long period, such as remaining in a difficult marriage or working for an intolerable boss, the result is memory impairment caused by inflammation and the immune system. Ohio State University researchers found a relationship between prolonged stress and short-term memory in a study involving mice. The study focused on the hippocampus, the body’s hub of emotional response and memory.

Chronic stress promotes spread of cancer through the lymphatic system.

Research by Australian scientists published in Nature Communications finds that stress hormones ramp up the lymphatic system, acting as a fertilizer to promote the spread of cancer in mice. According to the researchers, chronic stress both increases the number of lymphatic vessels draining from a tumor and increases the flow in existing vessels.

By using propranolol, a beta-blocker drug, scientists were able to block the action of the stress hormone adrenaline in mice. The drug stopped stress hormones from remodeling lymph vessels in the tumor and reduced the risk of cancer spreading through the lymph nodes.

The team is now involved in a pilot study of women with breast cancer to see if treatment with propranolol can reduce the risk of tumors spreading to other parts of the body.

Your face shows the effects of stress by aging more quickly.

Look no further than your face to see the damage stress can do:

  • It shows up in dark circles and bags under your eyes. That’s because the under-eye capillaries are fragile and break up under stress. Waking up to puffy eyes is a result of stress causing fluid to pool below the eyes.
  • Wrinkles appear in lines between the eyes, on the forehead, around the mouth and under the eyes.
  • Itching and hives are the result of inflammation from stress.
  • Teeth grinding is another sign of stress.
  • Hair loss can result from stress.
  • Stress also causes adult acne.
  • Skin takes on a dull, dry appearance. Chronic stress triggers a constant flow of cortisol, which, in turn, may cause a dip in estrogen. This can then result in a dull and dry appearance in the skin.

Changes in personality have been linked to long-term workplace stress.

New research from the London School of Economics and Political Science reveals that being stressed out at work can lead to changes in personality over time. The research, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, found that workers who felt excessive stress in the workplace reported higher levels of neuroticism. They became more worried and irritable, and less extroverted. They also showed more signs of shyness and spoke less often. On the other hand, workers who said they had greater control over their jobs reported increases in such desirable personality traits as warmth, cooperation, creativity and imagination.

Loss of a partner increases stress and may cause heart attacks.

Losing a loved one is an understandably stressful event. But the aftereffects of grief can be personally devastating, with sustained stress levels increasing the risk of developing an irregular heartbeat. The risk is greatest in the first 12 months after the loss. The condition, called atrial fibrillation, further increases the chances of having heart failure or a stroke, both potentially fatal.

The research was conducted by Aarhus University in Denmark and published in the UK medical journal Open Heart. Scientists found that the risk was heightened when the partner’s death was unexpected. Atrial fibrillation, affecting about one million people in the UK, becomes more common as the person gets older. It affects about seven out of 100 people over the age of 65.

Chronic stress increases weight gain.

The culprit is betatrophin, a protein that blocks an enzyme, adipose triglyceride lipase, that breaks down body fat. Chronic stress stimulates the production of betatrophin in the body, according to researchers at the University of Florida Health. Their results provide experimental evidence that long-term stress makes it harder to break down body fat.

Prolonged stress can lead to chronic fatigue syndrome.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that abnormally low concentrations of the hormone cortisol in the morning could correlate with more severe fatigue in patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).

A debilitating, complex disorder, CFS doesn’t improve with bed rest and may get worse with mental or physical activity. The CDC researchers found that people with CFS have reduced output of cortisol overall during the first hour after they wake up — one of the body’s most stressful times. While the exact cause of CFS hasn’t been identified, it’s believed to be related to an imbalance in the interactions of normal working systems in the body that help manage stress.

Chronic stress increases risk for cardiovascular events, such as heart attack and stroke.

A study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, examining brain scans for 293 patients, found that higher activity levels in the brain’s stress center, the amygdala, were associated with arterial inflammation — a high predictor of heart attack and stroke. The study results point to the conclusion that stress, which is known to be not only the result of adversity, may also be an important cause of disease.

Depression, anxiety, digestive and sleep problems may result from long-term stress.

The list of problems associated with or believed to be caused by chronic stress continues to grow as researchers delve more into the effects of prolonged stress. In addition to an increased risk for heart attack, stroke, memory loss, weight gain, chronic fatigue syndrome, cancer, quicker aging and personality changes, long-term stress may also induce or exacerbate depression and anxiety-related disorders, as well as digestive and sleep problems.

If you have a highly-stressed life or have been diagnosed with chronic stress, it’s important to do something about it. Change your habits. Get professional help to manage stress so that it doesn’t overwhelm you and wreak havoc on your life. Some short-term behavioral and lifestyle changes can make all the difference in the quality and length of your life.

Stressed man photo available from

Long-Term Effects Of Chronic Stress on Body and Mind

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