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How Chronic Stress Affects the Brain 😟 🧠

Over the last several years, one of my expanding and dedicated interests has been the impact of chronic stress and how it adversely affects each organ system within the entire body. In our world today, chronic stress is ever-relevant, rampant, and profoundly alarming.

Acute stress from time to time is normal and expected. Our body knows exactly how to handle temporary stress with grace under fire. On the other hand, chronic stress over months, years, and decades is not normal and comes with destructive consequences. As someone who has personally experienced the effects of chronic stress at times in my own life and as a doctor who has evaluated and treated countless clients over the years struggling with the storm (and aftermath) of chronic stress, I have heard and seen plenty of symptoms and illnesses. Stress on the body can take different forms. Here are just a few examples:

  • Environmental stress: weather patterns, natural disasters, neighborhood crime in neighborhood, pollution

  • Physiological stress: any illness, disease, health condition, physical injuries, disabilities

  • Chemical stress: medications, mold, toxic exposures, unhealthy diet, smoking, alcohol

  • Psychological/Emotional stress: ANYTHING that distresses you whether real or perceived.

As you might imagine, ALL of those examples are deeply interconnected and absolutely affect each other in multiple ways.

Whatever form chronic stress takes on the body, it results in an over-secretion of cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) from our adrenal glands and floods every cell and organ in our body. The stress signal never really shuts off and the body doesn't have the chance to fully recover and transition into rest and repair.

Over time, the cells and organs become irregular and dysfunctional. And that’s when illness and disease set in and take over. What was once adaptive now becomes maladaptive.

The more severe or traumatizing the stress and the longer it endures, the worse the consequences. The chief organ that perceives and interprets any and all kinds of stress - the brain - takes a substantial hit itself. Here are the consequences of what occurs within the brain (and therefore the body) when it's under the threat of chronic stress:

  • Pro-Inflammatory immune cells are heightened

  • Synaptic connections and neural circuitry – how nerve cells connect and communicate - are severely altered

  • Size and structure of the brain's components shrink

  • Neuroplasticity - the brain’s ability to reorganize, learn, change, evolve and adapt - is diminished

  • Hormonal cascade of communication between the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and the body’s organs become intermittent, inconsistent or halted

  • Neurotransmitter regulation and metabolism - serotonin, dopamine, GABA, norepinephrine - becomes irregular

  • Highly functioning, orderly and organized brain becomes dysfunctional, disordered, confused, and chaotic

The physical, psychological & emotional results of chronic stress on the brain & the body?

  • Impaired memory recall

  • Challenged decision-making and rational judgment

  • Difficulty with focus and concentration

  • Heightened mood swings, turbulent behavior, fear, hypervigilance

  • Increased depression and anxiety

  • Anhedonia – reduced ability to experience pleasure

  • Distressed relationships with others

  • Chronic fatigue

  • Weight gain (or weight loss)

  • Reproductive hormonal irregularities

  • Other endocrine & metabolism disorders

  • Chronic pa