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Don't Panic But Stress Can Make Your Brain Shrink

Prolonged stress, and prolonged exposure to the cortisol it floods your system with mean that your brain could actually be getting smaller.

But don't panic just yet.

In limited bursts, cortisol isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can lower your blood pressure, manage your blood sugar, and reduce inflammation within the body.

Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that when lab rats were exposed to brief stressful events, stem cells in their brains actually bloomed into new nerve cells. As a result, the rats’ mental performance improved.

Don't get us wrong, they still were rats.

Over long periods of time, though, elevated levels of cortisol can lead to obesity, heart disease, depression and high blood pressure. And that's not all -- chronic stress --  repeated and prolonged exposure to something stressful, say a really intense job or dealing with the illness or death of a loved one -- can see us humans' brains actually shrink.

The two areas affected are the hippocampus, which plays a central role in learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex, which regulates thoughts, emotions, and actions by "talking" to other brain regions.

In a recent study published online in the journal Neurology, researchers checked cortisol levels in the blood of over 2,000 healthy middle-aged people. They also assessed their memory and thinking skills and measured their brain.

What they found was that participants -- particularly women -- who had high levels of cortisol in their blood did less well in memory and cognitive tests. Over time, they also appeared to lose brain volume.

However, the study didn't go into what happened later -- and whether it was permanent, but scientist Dr Sudha Seshadri, one of the study’s authors, agreed that reducing stress may help. Says Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab, "The good news is that we can avoid the negative effects of stress if we learn how to manage and reduce the effects."

So, if you're going through some of that long term stress -- the chronic kind -- and are showing cognitive signs of stress like memory loss, difficulty thinking, concentrating, and decision-making, or physical signs like fatigue, headaches and weight loss -- you may need to get ahead of the stress pronto.


Sometimes exercise might sound like the last thing you feel like doing, especially if you’re stressed. But, said Anzab, "Taking some time out to exercise will not only help to clear the mental clutter that you’re feeling, but it will release some feel-good endorphins which are a positive thing for someone who is feeling stressed.

"It’s likely that you’ll return from your exercise
feeling a renewed sense of energy, a clearer
head and perhaps even ready to tackle any
stressful tasks. And remember, it doesn’t
need to be a full on 
high intensity workout,
even a half an hour walk will do the trick!"

Nourish your body

Just like cars need the right fuel to run properly, our bodies need the right food. "If you’re feeling stressed, adding in food that isn’t going to nourish your body is only going to make you feel worse (likely to feel tired, sluggish and unmotivated). Be sure to feed yourself a well-balanced diet and if you are missing any necessary vitamins or minerals, take some supplements to replace them," said Anzab.


"Meditating can help our minds to de-clutter and focus solely on singular thoughts (rather than letting thoughts get away from us)," Anzab told 10 daily. "It can help us to be mindful about what we are thinking and try to remove anything negative from our minds. It allows us to slow down, think more clearly and gives us a mental ‘time-out’ from anything that is stressing us. "

Get more sleep

"Sleep in my opinion is a highly underrated tool for any mental issues and in particular stress. Not enough sleep means our minds aren’t functioning properly and a lot of the time, the stress can feel worse because we’re running on a low amount of shut-eye," said Anzab.

If you're finding it hard to fall asleep because of the stress, download a calming app or read before you go to bed -- it helps take your mind off what’s worrying you. Oh, and try to avoid watching TV or scrolling through your phone right before bed -- this will mean your sleep will be negatively affected because of the LED or Blue lights affecting your circadian rhythm.

Talk to someone

Sometimes if you’re feeling stressed, being able to verbalise your feelings can do wonders. "It might help to just have someone there for you to vent your feelings, or it might help to have someone offer advice to manage it. Seek out a loved one or friend, however, if you don’t feel comfortable chatting to them, seek the help of a professional," advised Anzab.

Feature Image: Getty