How stress shrinks your brain and what to do about it

stress shrinks brain

​"STRESS SHRINKS BRAIN!"  (attention grabbing headline over!)

“Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more stressed than I do at the moment. I just have no time for anything apart from work, kids, eat, sleep. Repeat”

Sound familiar? I overheard a conversation very similar to this on a train journey last week. Two women were trading soundbites about how stressed they felt, how tired they were, how busy they were. It was almost like a competition, a badge of honour, trying to decide which of them was more stressed than the other!

Stress is now widely accepted as an unavoidable phenomenon in our society. Both ladies I overheard on that train certainly seemed resigned to their fate at its hands, convincing themselves it was just a fact of life, as set in stone as their eye colour.

But isn’t stress necessary and inevitable?

Stress, and the effect it has on our bodies, is indeed a necessary and very natural phenomenon that helps us respond when our mind or bodies perceive us to be under some kind of threat. it can also serve us incredibly well. Olympic athletes, for example, will be channelling their stress in a positive way to help them perform at their peak in Rio as I write. Then there were our ancestors who needed to be able to respond to extremely stressful life or death situations, perhaps they needed to outrun a wild animal for instance, something that very few of us need to worry about now. But of course, there is a huge difference between using stress constructively for peak physical performance, or as a life saving safety net, to it building to a level where it consumes our every waking minute.

When does stress become an issue?

To understand more about the impact of stress on our bodies, we first need to know what happens when we experience the feeling of being ‘stressed’.....

  • Stress begins in our Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal Axis, aka the HPAA. Together with your kidneys, the HPAA controls your response to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol.
  • Cortisol primes you for action; the fight or flight instinct, useful if you need to escape a large wild animal attack, as our ancestors might have needed to, but these days it’s rarely needed for such a life or death situation.
  • If stress levels remain elevated over time, the body’s level of cortisol continues to rise too and this has a range of effects on your physical body.
stress response

The effects of prolonged stress on your brain

The effects of stress over a longer period of time do not make for happy reading I’m afraid. (Fear not though, the news does get better - so keep reading!)

Here’s what happens to your brain when levels of cortisol remain too high over longer periods of time:

  • The parts of your brain responsible for learning and memory weaken
  • The fronto-temporal part of your brain is affected reducing your capacities for learning and memory
  • Your risk of depression and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease can increase
  • Your brain actually shrinks in size.

Let me repeat that, your brain’s physical size actually changes, and it only gets smaller, due to the effects of prolonged stress.

I told you it wasn’t happy reading didn’t I?

But let’s get to the good stuff, because the good news is there is a way to reverse the damage too much cortisol does to the brain.

How to reverse the effects of stress on your brain

Thankfully the solutions are simple to implement and highly effective. According to neuroscientist Sara Lazar, exercise and meditation are the two most effective ways to counter the damage stress does to our brains.

In her scientific study, Sara Lazar challenged the concept of brain damage due to stress being permanent, exploring the idea that our brains can in fact heal and change. Neuroplasticity essentially describes this process; the changes that happen to a brain when we do something repeatedly.

Sara identified that we can in fact use many techniques to reverse damage from stress and through her research found that meditation has scientifically proven benefits. Benefits such as decreased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia and increased levels of satisfaction, concentration and even empathy and compassion. Sound good? And it’s such a simple fix too. Establish a regular practice of meditation of just 10-15 minutes a day and you have the reassurance that you are countering the effects of stress that inevitably we all experience. You are protecting your brain against damage that could result in serious conditions and diseases including Alzheimer’s and depression. Meditation has also been shown to increase the size of your hippocampus, the area of your brain responsible for your memory. Which would explain why when we are under extreme levels of stress, we generally struggle to remember everything we feel we need to.

As Sara says;

“Meditation can literally change your brain”

You can watch Sara's TEDx Talk here, in which she explains more about her scientific study into the effects of meditation on our brains. It’s a fascinating (and uplifting) look at simple changes in our lives that can have such a huge impact.

How to get started with mindfulness and meditation

So now you know how important meditation and mindfulness really is for your brain, how can you incorporate it into your daily routine?

There are some great resources out there to help you and it needn’t become a chore or just ‘one more thing’ you need to get done each day. With a little persistence and commitment to supporting your own health, you’ll quickly learn how to incorporate mindfulness into everyday tasks such as cooking the evening meal, walking the kids to school, travelling on the train to your next meeting etc.

Smartphone Apps

You could try the very popular Headspace app for smartphones - it has a brilliant 10 session introductory course that introduces you to the idea of just stopping for 10 minutes a day to be mindful and meditate. It’s simple to do anywhere and it help establishes a habit, which is critical to seeing the positive results I’ve talked about here - consistency and repetition being key.

Mindfulness Courses

There are also 8 week mindfulness courses where small groups learn more about emotions, thoughts and sensations. The course can help you to discover ways to be more aware of habitual response patterns and learn techniques for sitting meditation as well as gentle movement to help us become more focused, relaxed and present.  Over the period of 8 weeks the brain literally changes - this has been proven by MRI scanners to have more grey matter (the good stuff!) in the right places. 

Whichever option you choose (the more the merrier by the way), you’ll be giving your brain its best possible chance to reduce the effects of overstimulation, of too much cortisol and too much stress that inevitably our busy modern lives create. And given the stakes are so high, isn’t that just the most important thing you could do for yourself?

With love,

Read more on my 8 week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses in Wokingham and Ascot, including what we cover and how to book. Courses begin regularly through the year and the next course starts in September.  Hope to see you there!

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