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Stress on your brain.

Can stress shrink your brain?

Studies have shown excessive stress can wreak havoc on your body, including the brain. Eric Awad, M.D., a neurologist at Piedmont, says it is difficult to know all the effects it has on your body, but stress is inherent, difficult to measure and varies from person to person.

"We know physical and emotional stress can impact the brain and nervous system in a variety of ways, but conducting clinical trials that compare the effects of stress to the natural effects of aging is challenging," explains Dr. Awad. "Some animal studies have shown stress can increase the amount of glue-like chemicals that deposit in brain cells. These deposits are detected in degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, which causes brain shrinkage and eventually, death."

Chemical effects of stress

Acute stress, like trauma or serious illness, triggers a fight-or-flight response in the brain and a rush of adrenaline. Adrenaline acts as a vasoconstrictor that can increase blood pressure and speed the heart. The problem is, adrenaline in large doses can trigger migraines, seizures or even acute strokes in people who are prone to these conditions.

When someone is under chronic stress, the body consistently produces a hormone called cortisol in response to persistent stimulation from the brain’s hypothalamus. When chronically elevated, cortisol can lead to many negative effects on the body. Chronic stress also creates imbalances in certain neurotransmitters, which can lead to poor memory, a shorter attention span and depression.

Anatomical effects of stress

Dr. Awad says a patient’s stress level is a crucial part of his or her medical history.

“The negative influence on the brain can be structural (shrinkage or atrophy), chemical (changes in neurotransmitters), inflammatory, ischemic (changing blood supply), neoplastic (developing tumors) or a combination of these,” he says.

The good news is there are many studies conducting research on the brain. He believes one day researchers may discover managing stress may even change the brain’s and the body’s ability to respond to medication.

Combating stress is key

Dr. Awad believes the key to combating stress and all its negative health effects is to identify the sources and work to minimize them. 

“We should also engage in activities that shift our attention away from stress,” he adds.

He suggests the following activities:

  1. Exercise

  2. Meditation, yoga and tai chi

  3. Journal writing

  4. Socializing

  5. Engaging in hobbies

Every person has his or her own way of relaxing. Once you find what works for you, Dr. Awad recommends making a conscious effort to incorporate these habits into your daily life.

“We know the brain and nervous system control most of our bodily functions. With that said, controlling your stress level is just as important to your health as eating a balanced diet and getting enough sleep,” he says.

Concerned about your stress level? Need to make an appointment with a Piedmont physician? Save time, book online.

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