Chronic stress results in changes to numerous parts of our brain including the amygdala, HPA axis, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. These changes are associated with signs of chronic stress such as problems with concentration, memory and stress control.
Improving our mental wellbeing through interventions such as exercise and meditation can reverse harmful brain changes and prevent the development of more serious issues such as clinical depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Full Video Summary
Chronic stress can affect brain size, brain structure and brain functionality.
Chronic stress increases the activity level and the number of neural connections in the amygdala, our brain’s fear centre. As a result, our sensitivity to stress and anxiety is increased. Our sensitivity to poor mental wellbeing is also increased due to chronic stress inhibiting the activity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis.
Chronic stress shrinks our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain responsible for concentration, decision making, judgement, and social interaction.
Chronic stress deteriorates the electric signals in the hippocampus, the part of our brain associated with learning, memories and stress control. Fewer new brain cells are made in the hippocampus, which may make it harder for us to learn and remember things. Over time, this may lead to more serious mental problems such as clinical depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Research suggests that nurturing upbringings result in the creation of more cortisol receptors, which stick to cortisol and dampen the stress response. Therefore people who experience nurturing upbringings are more stress-resilient, and those with traumatic upbringings are more stress-reactive.
3 Powerful Ways to Take Control of Your Stress
Importantly, there are many ways to reverse the impact of stress on the brain.
The most powerful methods include exercise, meditation and eliciting the relaxation response.
How do they help rewire our brain and body?
Regular exercise reduces the overall activation of our amygdala and sympathetic nervous system—the parts of our brain and body that generate the stress response. Exercise also stimulates chemicals in the brain called “brain-derived neurotrophic factors” which help new brain cells to grow and develop – a process called "neurogenesis". Studies suggest that just ten weeks of regular exercise is enough to significantly improve your mental wellbeing.
Regular meditation decreases the size of the amygdala and increases grey matter density in the prefrontal cortex, the brain area responsible for concentration, decision making, judgement, and social interaction. Regular meditation is also associated with changes to the hippocampus (learning and memory) and the cingulate cortex (decision making). Interestingly, research suggests that just eight weeks of regular meditation practice is enough to produce similar brain changes to those seen in people who've been meditating most of their lives!
Regular elicitation of the relaxation response – intentionally slowing our breathing, heart rate and reducing our blood pressure on a regular basis has been found to change the expression of our genes in a way which makes us more resilient to stress and anxiety.
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