It seems like everyone is burned out these days. From the stressors of day-to-day life to the pandemic and other world events, it’s not a stretch to say there is always something to stress about. But studies show that long-term stress can actually prematurely shrink your brain—and lead to memory loss.
“Cortisol is released when we’re stressed. It creates our fight-or-flight response and it’s a major player in controlling how the brain grows,” says Omar Danoun, M.D., a neurologist at Henry Ford Health. “Cortisol is a healthy hormone to have when we sense danger. It creates all of these physiological changes in our body that are designed to give the brain more agility and awareness for that fight-or-flight response.
“But it’s a paradox, because in the beginning, cortisol enhances memory function and alertness to help us escape from whatever danger we are in, but we’re only supposed to experience that cortisol high once in a while. When we’re under chronic stress, it creates so many changes in our system, both physiological and psychological. It increases our heart rate and blood pressure, it increases belly fat and leads to diabetes—and it leads to changes in the brain, too.”
When exposed to too much cortisol, brain cells may start dying. Chronic stress can shrink the amygdala—that’s the area of the brain that’s responsible for processing emotions—which can lead to depression and anxiety. And not just that, but cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for memory function.
The Good News? There Are Ways To Reverse Brain Shrinkage
The effect of stress on your brain is cumulative. It can keep building up until you develop depression, dementia or memory loss later in life.
“With your brain, it’s like you start with a full bucket of water,” says Dr. Danoun. “And every time you’re stressed, you spill some water from your bucket. If this happens time after time, it will cause your bucket to empty faster—or your brain to deteriorate faster.”
But if you’re now stressing about your brain shrinking, know that you can reverse the effects. Stress is sometimes unavoidable—we all experience it. But there are ways to help your brain recover. For example:
- Regular exercise can help regulate your fight-or-flight response, and it can nourish areas of the brain to improve brain capacity and function.
- Meditation can both prevent and reverse the effects of stress. “It can change our outlook and the way we perceive the world,” says Dr. Danoun.
- Having a strong social network can help lighten your load and reduce stress on the body. After all, as humans, we are wired to have close connections with other people.
- Helping others helps ourselves, too. “It has a real, tangible effect on our brain,” says Dr. Danoun.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy can help produce new cells in the hippocampus. “It can reverse the effects of cortisol on the hippocampus, especially in people who have anxiety,” says Dr. Danoun.
Studies have shown that changing your perspective can also help. “People who look at a stressful situation as a burden will suffer more,” says Dr. Danoun. “But people who look at a stressful situation as an opportunity for betterment may not experience the same cognitive effects.”
That said, some people are biologically more susceptible to stress—and even smaller stressors can greatly affect them. If you are having difficulty dealing with stress, don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional who can help you develop tactics to better manage anxiety and stressors in your life.
Dr. Omar Danoun is a neurologist at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and Henry Ford Medical Center in Taylor.