How Does Stress Affect Your Brain?

By Sylvie Tremblay, MSc; Updated June 24, 2017
This is your brain on stress

Whether it’s long hours, strained friendships or a packed-to-the-gills schedule stressing you out, dealing with stress is no fun. It’s not great for your health, either. Chronic stress has been linked to behaviors that increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, and it’s also associated with poorer control over diabetes as well as weight gain.

Stress impacts your brain, too. Long-term stress activates genes and harmful processes in your brain, that can negatively affect both your short-term focus and your long-term mental and neurological health. Read on to learn what happens to your brain on stress – and a few tips to mitigate it.

Stress, Genes and Your Brain

Part of the way our cells behave depends on our DNA – the actual content of the genetic information found within our cells. Inherit or develop a genetic mutation and you could face a higher risk of any gene-related illness, from Huntington’s to cancer.

Another aspect of our genetic health, though, is how our genes are activated – a phenomena called gene expression. Turning off certain genes can change your cell behavior – and if those changes occur within your brain cells, it can change the way your brain functions.

That’s exactly what happens when your brain is exposed to stress. New research shows that stress early on in life can cause genetic changes that affect your sensitivity to stress later in life. The researchers found that by suppressing a stress-related gene, called Otx2, in animal experiments, they were able to cause permanent changes in gene expression that lasted into adulthood. Those changes meant that stress later in life was more likely to cause depression-like symptoms – in short, those mice were less equipped to deal with stressful situations.

And while animal models aren’t always a perfect match for what happens in humans, this research backs up what we know about how stress affects human brains, too.

Stress and Cognitive Functioning

If you’ve ever tried to focus on a challenging task while you’re stressed out, you know it’s not easy. Stress can interfere with your cognitive functioning – a term that includes higher-level brain functions like learning, memory and problem solving. And if you’re dealing with chronic stress, you may develop longer-term damage.

Research from the journal Nature, for example, indicates that stress eventually changes the expression of two cell adhesion genes – called NCAM and L1 – that normally help your brain deal with stress. The researchers found that the reduction in the activity of those two genes was linked to nerve damage and problems with spatial learning. And a later study, published in “Neuron,” reported that stress also disrupted nerve signaling in the prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain involved in cognition.

Stress and Brain Disorders

Long-term stress ups your risk of brain disorders as well. One animal study found that stress can trigger physiological changes in the brain strongly enough to cause Alzheimer’s like symptoms. And a later literature review reports that stress increase chronic inflammation in your brain, and may be damaging enough to count as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Not surprisingly, stress has effects on your mental health as well. Depression has an effect on several regions of the brain that can contribute to depression, and it impacts several brain hormones your brain needs for proper emotional regulation. What’s more, depression changes inflammation – and that inflammation may also influence gene expression in a way that may add to the risk of depression.

Managing Your Stress

All in all, stress is bad news for your brain. But it’s still possible to manage your stress in an effort to keep your brain healthy and happy. In fact, it might be easier than you think. Research from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found that just 12 minutes of meditation daily was enough to trigger positive changes in gene expression to protect neurological health.

Try fitting meditation into your nightly routine to help you unwind at the end of the day, or start your day with a meditative practice to invigorate your mind every morning. Make time for regular exercise – a proven stress-buster – and eat a balanced diet to provide your brain with the nutrients it needs.

Most importantly, discuss your concerns with a medical professional. A professional can help you identify stress triggers in your life and offer personalized solutions, so you can feel better – and benefit your mind, too.

About the Author

Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Based in Ontario, Canada, Tremblay is an experienced journalist and blogger specializing in nutrition, fitness, lifestyle, health and biotechnology, as well as real estate, agriculture and clean tech.