Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

How Stress Affects Your Brain

“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.”
― Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

STRESS CAN PLAY HAVOC WITH YOUR BRAIN HEALTH. Today we explore how you can walk away from stress and other means to calm your brain.

One of the best stress-busters is one of the easiest for many of us: Put one foot in front of the other and walk.

Other negative contributants to cognitive well-being include too much sitting, lack of socializing, and inadequate sleep. Fortunately, we can often change our lifestyles to optimize our brain’s well-being.

Chronic stress and health

Do you ever get forgetful or feel disorganized in times of stress? I know that I have had this experience. There are these acute negative consequences of stress, but the chronic ones are in our sights today.

Chronic stress may change your brain to affect cognitive functions such as memory. Listen to Dr. Jull Goldstein, Professor of Psychiatry and Medicine at Harvard Medical School:

“Stress affects not only memory and many other brain functions, like mood and anxiety, but also promotes inflammation, which adversely affects heart health.”

Photo by Gaspar Uhas on Unsplash

Acute stress, memory, and cognition

Why does stress affect our memory and thinking? Let’s get back to brain basics. Rather than thinking of the brain as one unit, conceive of it as a bunch of disparate parts that perform different tasks.

Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that when one part of the brain is engaged, the other parts may not have as much energy to do their assigned tasks.

This explanation makes sense to me. For instance, let’s say you are in an alleyway and fear being the victim of a robbery. Your amygdala, designed to activate our survival instincts, takes charge in a “fight or flight” fashion.

The other brain structures, including ones designed to store memories or perform high-order tasks, have less energy to do their jobs. In survival mode, energy shunts to brain structures that help us to survive the moment. In this context, you would not be surprised that the stress associated with traumatic events can make us forgetful.

Chronic stress and the brain

Did you know that chronic stress can rewire your brain? Dr. Ressler explains that animals that experience stress over long periods have lower activity levels in brain parts designated for performing high-order tasks (for example, the prefrontal cortex).

On the other hand, chronic stress leads to more activity in primitive parts of the brain focused on survival (for example, the amygdala). The brain builds up the parts of the brain that handle threats, while the brain regions dealing with more complex thought become a lower priority.

Stress management

Many of us could do a better job of coping with stress. Here are some tips that may help you better manage your stress (and hopefully dodge some of its brain-damaging effects):

  • Try to establish some control over your situation. While stress is not always predictable, it may help to focus on what you do have control over. Having a routine helps me quite a bit.
  • Get some sleep. Stress can cause challenges with sleep, and inadequate sleep affects our brain’s higher-function regions.

5 Things You Need to Do to Get Better Sleep, Backed by ScienceA STRONG BIOLOGIC DRIVE regulates sleep, but the ability to fall asleep at your preferred time and to maintain…medium.com

“You must learn to let go. Release the stress. You were never in control anyway.”
― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

  • Be flexible with your reactions. When I sense that I am about to get upset, I know that I have no more than a second or two before my brain’s primitive centers kick in. Stop and breathe. That driver that cut you off? Not worth reacting to. Breathe and thank yourself later. This brain hack works wonders for me. Alternatively, repeat some mantra to yourself, such as “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay.” Done quickly, you may keep your mind in the thinking brain rather than the primitive amygdala.
  • Change your mindset. We all experience some degree of stress. We need some stress to grow.
  • Use lists. The day can seem overwhelming, but I love having my task list. Even better, I love crossing things off.
  • Get help if you need it. Early intervention may help you avoid long-term health consequences from chronic stress.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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