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This is Stress on Your Brain

Thrive Carolinas / Health  / This is Stress on Your Brain

This is Stress on Your Brain

Nancy Palermo, MD

Have you ever been in a stressful situation where you were so overwhelmed you could not think straight?

More than likely it was related to your cortisol levels. Cortisol, which is produced by the adrenal glands in times of stress, plays an important role in aiding the body’s response to a stressful situation.

When we are in an acute period of stress the body and mind need to be hyper-focused on survival.

We remember details about the situation are not important, but when we are constantly stressed and cortisol levels remain high for long periods of time, it can wreak havoc on many organs, including the brain.

When the brain is under prolonged stress the limbic system which is composed of the amygdala and hippocampus as well as other brain systems dominates the prefrontal cortex- the part of our brains involved in memory, emotions, and other higher functions.

Prolonged stress can cause a disconnect in the prefrontal cortex and this can lead to the inability to modulate emotions (anxiety), mental functioning morbidity, psychiatric illness, and medical disease.

A 2018 study that was published in Neurology, demonstrated the effects of circulating cortisol levels and brain function. The study showed that higher cortisol levels can directly affect the cognitive performance of an individual and over time the brain’s structural integrity.

The study looked at 2000 young and middle-aged adults with no known neurological issues or dementia. What the researchers found was the higher the circulating cortisol levels in the study subjects, the worst their memory and visual perception. Even more concerning was the finding that higher cortisol levels were also associated with worse total cerebral brain and occipital and frontal gray matter volumes. These findings also appeared to be worse in women. That is scary.

We cannot avoid stress obviously, but we can influence our perception or response to stress.

It does not matter how good your diet, how much you exercise, or how many supplements you take – if you do not manage your stress, you may be at a risk for long-term effects.  We need to not only learn to reframe our perception of stress which takes time, but we also need to work on working to manage the stress in the present through breathing and meditation practices. There are no treatments for mental health whether conventional or integrative that will result in a cure. A prescription may lessen the symptoms but will never make them go away. To get control patients must develop strategies of self-care and purpose that will help alter behavior. This is the only way they can become emotionally tolerant.

Tips to be present in the moment include the following practices which you can start right now.

  1. Pay attention to your breathing and try to focus and control it.
  2. Try to really notice what you are sensing at any given moment. Pay attention to the sights, sounds, and smells. This forces you to be in the present moment.
  3. Recognize your thoughts and emotions and accept them without reacting to them. Stabilize your attention on these feelings and acknowledge them as momentary thus releasing them from becoming an affective reaction.
  4. Tune in to your body’s physical sensations and recognize they are a reaction to the situation not a medical problem.

Learning to adopt a meditation practice takes time.

It is like training for a marathon (without the sore knees) so be patient. There is research now showing that just 2 weeks of adopting a meditation practice can have beneficial effects.

A study out of the University of Wisconsin in Madison followed individuals enrolled in an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. They found after only weeks the participants showed a reduction in the activity of their amygdala, the part of the brain that mediated our stress response. At two weeks the participants also showed gains in memory and attention. This was demonstrated by improved test scores on graduate standardized tests that were achieved without additional studying.

Another study that looked at university students showed that only 4 sessions of mindfulness and meditation for 20 minutes over 4 consecutive days helped them modulate their response to anxiety. A study that looked at 13 university students struggling with depression and anxiety who enrolled in 8 weeks of mindfulness and meditation practices was able to show a reduction in their anxiety and depression scores without medication.

All of this should be motivation to make meditation and mindfulness practice part of your daily self-care. Start where you are and be patient with your progress. If this seems too hard initially you may need help through assistance modalities like Biofeedback machines, HeartMath or an Alpha-Stim device to get started. You can check with your provider to see if one of these might be a good option for you.

Thrive Carolinas


  • Mary Anne Gauthier
    June 4, 2021 at 2:34 pm

    This is so important, thank you, will share with others. Love you guys and what you do!
    (Btw, there’s a tiny typo, University of Wisconsin at Madison.)

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