CogniFit's Science blog: Stress And Our Brain

Stress And Our Brain

It is widely recognized that stress is bad for us and scientists are becoming more aware of just how bad stress is for different systems in our bodies.

Stress can raise blood pressure, can make our arteries stiffer; it can suppress our immune system; it has been show to raise the risk of diabetes, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have found that chronic stress rewires our brains in such a way that it makes us repeat the behaviors that are stressing us out to begin with. In experiments with rats at the Life and Health Sciences Research Institute at the University of Minho in Portugal, chronically stressed rats resorted to routine actions, rather than trying to find a different way to deal with stress.

Their brains also underwent some changes. The part of their brains that are associated with executive function (decision making and goal-directed actions) got smaller while the parts of the brain that are linked to habit got bigger. This could explain why we end up in a rut when we are stressed.

Fortunately, there is a flip side to this phenomenon as well. The changes in the brain caused by stress seem to be reversible. Rats that were exposed to various stressful situations over a 4 week period manifested the “rut” behavior. However, after 4 weeks of vacation, these rats started acting like normal rats again. The parts of the prefrontal cortex that had atrophied due to the stress, regenerated and the dendrites in the “habit control center” actually shrunk.

Stress is a necessary factor in everyday life. It helps us maneuver our way through life by reacting to different situations that must be dealt with. But when we are faced with more and more stress, the system just doesn’t get the time needed to get back to a pre-stress status and our brains go into overdrive and start going around in circles, making a mess of different systems in our bodies. We need to raise our blood pressure to get more oxygen to our muscles when we have to run away from danger, but if our blood pressure is constantly high, that leads to disease.

So while stress is a part of our lives, especially in these difficult times, it is important to find a way to relax and to break the stress cycle. Breathe deeply and think positive thoughts. Your brain will be in better shape.