Stress eats away at all of us at one point or another.
Nearly three-quarters of adults report feeling physical symptoms of stress within the past month, according to the American Psychological Association and while 62% of adults have tried to somehow reduce stress in the past five years, only 37% have had luck in actually doing so.
We know stress increases our chances of developing chronic illnesses like hypertension and cardiovascular disease, but surely it’s having an affect on our brains too.
Researchers have been unpacking some of the neurological effects of stress and their findings are fascinating. In the past year, research out of the University of California, Berkeley has demonstrated that chronic stress generates long-term changes in the brain that lead to anxiety and mood disorders.
According to research by Yale scientists, chronic stress leads to a loss of synaptic connections between brain cells, which could result in decreased brain mass in the prefrontal cortex–the part of your brain just behind the forehead that’s responsible for regulating behavior. In other words: Stress literally shrinks the size of your brain.
But before you get stressed about your ever-shrinking noggin, know that we are talking about prolonged chronic stress here. There are plenty of healthy kinds of stress we experience in small doses–the kind you feel before an important meeting or presentation, for example, that can give you a boost of energy and adrenalin.
And it’s worth looking at some of the ways your brain can be altered for the better to help offset the negative effects of stress. According to Harvard researcher Sara Lazar, eight weeks of mindful meditation created measurable structural differences in the brains of meditators. Participants who spent an average of 27 minutes a day doing mindful meditation went under a brain scan that revealed increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, the part of the brain critical for learning and memory as well as a decrease in the grey-matter density of the amygdala, which is most active during stress and anxiety.
Exercise also highly activates the brain’s hippocampus and strengthens the brain’s white matter–nerve fibers that help the brain function more efficiently.
“Changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements,” according to Lazar. “People are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”