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What stress can do to your brain

And ways to reduce its impact.

By Rolake BabaPublished 3 months ago 3 min read
What stress can do to your brain
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Ever find yourself tossing and turning at night, perhaps feeling more irritable or forgetful than usual? Hey, we've all been there. Chances are, stress is paying you a visit. Now, stress isn't always the villain; it can be a handy sidekick, providing that burst of energy and focus needed for a heated sports match or a nerve-wracking public speech. However, when stress becomes a constant companion, the kind that lingers day in and day out, it starts to play tricks on your brain. Let's unravel this fascinating tale of stress and its impact on the brain in a way that's as engaging as your favorite story.

The journey into the stress-filled realm begins with a dynamic trio known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Think of them as the superheroes residing in your brain and kidney, ready to tackle any stress that comes your way. When stress knocks on your door, this powerhouse team releases cortisol, a stress hormone that readies your body for action. Sounds great, right? But here's the catch: when cortisol hangs around for too long, it becomes the villain in our story, wreaking havoc on the brain's structure and function, even meddling with the very genes that make you who you are.

Picture this: chronic stress cranks up the activity level in your amygdala, the brain's fear center, making it work overtime. Meanwhile, cortisol takes its toll on the hippocampus, the brain region responsible for learning, memories, and stress control. As cortisol levels soar, the once-efficient electric signals in the hippocampus start to fizzle out. And guess what? The hippocampus is also the gatekeeper that keeps the HPA axis in check. So, when the hippocampus weakens, so does your ability to rein in stress. It's like a superhero losing their powers.

But that's not the end of our adventure. Cortisol goes above and beyond, literally causing your brain to shrink. It messes with synaptic connections between neurons and shrinks the prefrontal cortex—the brain's control center for concentration, decision-making, judgment, and social interaction. To make matters worse, it puts a damper on the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus. Imagine chronic stress as a formidable adversary, making it tougher for you to learn, remember things, and potentially setting the stage for serious mental issues down the road.

Now, let's throw in a fascinating twist to our plot—epigenetics, the drama that unfolds within your brain's DNA. An experiment with rat moms and their pups reveals that the amount of nurturing received as a baby plays a crucial role in how one responds to stress later in life. Pups of caring moms become less sensitive to stress, thanks to their brains developing more cortisol receptors. On the flip side, pups of neglectful moms turn out more sensitive to stress. These changes are like bookmarks in the story of genes—epigenetic changes—that affect which genes are expressed without altering the genetic code. The surprising part? The epigenetic changes caused by a single rat mom were inherited by many generations of rats after her. It's like a genetic legacy being passed down through the ages.

But here's where our tale takes a hopeful turn. It's not all doom and gloom. There are ways to rewrite the script that cortisol has imposed on your stressed brain. Enter the superheroes—exercise and meditation. These powerful tools, involving movement and mindful breathing, swoop in to decrease stress levels and boost the size of your hippocampus, all while enhancing your memory. It's the climax where you take control of stress before it takes control of you.

So, fellow adventurer in the realm of daily pressures, fear not. Your story doesn't end with stress as the victor. Armed with exercise, meditation, and a dash of awareness, you can rewrite the narrative, reclaiming control of your stressed-out brain and turning the tide in your favor. After all, every great story deserves a hero, and in this tale, that hero is you.


About the Creator

Rolake Baba

I am fascinated by how the human mind works, so I write about it. I believe that with the right state of mind, humans can be unstoppable. If an article I write can help someone be better at life, then my job is done.

Reader insights

Nice work

Very well written. Keep up the good work!

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  1. Heartfelt and relatable

    The story invoked strong personal emotions

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  • Carol Townend3 months ago

    I do meditation regularly, but my power for dealing with stress is exercise such as fast walking on my treadmill, and yoga.

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