This Is What Stress Does to Your Brain

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brain and memoryThis article originally appeared on Live in the Now.

Researchers have discovered why you tend to be forgetful when under pressure. They found a link between stress and reduced short-term memory that manifests in difficulty recalling locations and relating objects.

During times of stress, the body produces more of the hormone cortisol. In the recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists discovered an association between chronically elevated levels of this hormone and a gradual reduction of synapses in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for short-term memory. Synapses are the structures nerve cells use to transmit signals to each other, a function that in this part of the brain enables processing, storing and remembering information.

As people age, synapses in this area will get smaller and some will disappear, thus impairing memory. The older people are, the longer their synapses have been exposed to the shrinking effects of cortisol. Researchers concluded the problem is most likely to start at approximately 65 years of age.

Chronic Stress Can Lead to Mental Illness

Another recent study published in Molecular Psychiatry found that stress can produce long-term changes in the brain that can make a person vulnerable to mental illness. Stress increases white matter, structures that send messages across the brain, but it decreases gray matter, the part of the brain involved in information processing.

The resulting imbalance hinders the brain’s internal communication, a defect that may increase the risk of developing conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, chronic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Scientists involved in the research say it could explain why young people who experience chronic stress early in life have a tendency to suffer from mood disorders, anxiety and learning disorders.

How to Fight Stress

It’s clear that stress should be taken seriously, as it can affect our mental and emotional health. While you can’t eliminate anxiety-producing situations, you can engage in practices that will enhance your ability to cope with them. Any type of aerobic exercise can siphon off tension and improve mood.

Getting enough sleep and eating a healthy diet are also important for keeping stress at a manageable level. Additionally, the stress-reduction techniques of yoga, tai chi, massage and deep breathing are very beneficial.

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