Are you stressed right now? I know I am. Stress isn’t usually a pleasant thing, but it’s a natural and fairly common one. But if you experience stress too often, it can have negative effects on your health. Your brain is no exception and can be hit pretty hard by high levels of stress:
Experiencing persistently high levels of stress can impair memory. “The basic idea is that the brain is shunting its resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. And if you’re forgetting things, that can compound the stress in your life.
Long term strain from stress can severely affect your mood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it can cause sadness, anger, irritability, or even contribute to more serious problems like anxiety or depression. Depression can be caused by persistently high levels of glucocorticoid, another stress hormone, according to William R. Klemm Ph.D.
Being stressed can also shrink your brain. “High cortisol levels are secreted due to stress damage and reduce the volume of the brain,” says Dr. Janette Nesheiwat. This effect was shown to be especially potent in women, as compared to men. Stress can kill neurons, and accelerate brain degeneration and cognitive decline, says Dr. Klemm.
Fortunately, there are ways you can reduce stress in your life and avoid it’s harmful side effects:
Find the cause
Next time you feel stressed, see if you can figure out what exactly is triggering you. “Once you know what’s bothering you, develop a plan for addressing it,” according to the American Psychological Association. If possible, avoid the things that stress you out, says Dr. Klemm.
Bringing more predictability into your life can reduce stress. “Having a routine is good for development and health,” says Dr. Ressler. He recommends getting organized and making a daily to-do list. “Laying tasks out like this helps reduce the feeling that the brain is being bombarded,” he says.
Take care of your body
Your body needs sleep to function properly. “Sleep deprivation makes parts of the brain that handle higher-order functions work less well,” says Dr. Ressler. You also need to fuel your system properly. “Opt for whole grains, fruits, and veggies, which contain complex carbs that boost production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps level out your mood,” says Dr. Nesheiwat. She also suggests exercising regularly. “Exercise secretes endorphins, the hormones that improve our thinking, concentration, and mood.”
Talk to your doctor
The NIMH recommends talking to your health care provider or a health professional if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Dr. Santosh Kesari suggests getting a thorough medical evaluation. You could even be prescribed cortisol-reducing medication if your doctor thinks you need it, says Dr. Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui. But there are many other ways they can help you learn to manage your stress.