Tuesday Tips for Caregivers – 4 Ways Stress Affects the Brain
As caregivers, we tend to think of stress as an immediate problem. You’re running late for an appointment; You just found mess in the family room; You have nobody to watch your loved one while you go to work. This short-term stress makes us feel anxious, frustrated and tense. Unfortunately, that’s only half the story.
Over time, high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can wreak havoc on our physical, mental and emotional health. It’s been proven that chronic stress is linked to health conditions such as depression, anxiety and PTSD. But what kind of changes are actually taking place in the brain when we experience a stressful situation?
Here are four ways stress can affect your brain:
- Stress triggers a chemical change in the brain
French researcher discovered an enzyme that attacks a molecule in the brain when triggered by stress. The molecule is responsible for regulating synapses in the hippocampus, but when modified by stress, will make fewer connections. This leads to feeling grumpy and irritable. Other symptoms of this chemical change are forgetfulness and loss of sociability.
- Chronic stress can shrink your brain
Stressful life events can potentially harm your memory and learning capacity by reducing the amount of gray natter in your brain regions associated with emotions, self-control and physiological functions. This shrinkage can lead to emotional and cognitive impairment over time. A study on mice in 2008 found that even short-term stress can lead to communication problems.
- Stressful events can kill brain cells
We rapidly generate new neurons in the hippocampus as we learn new information. But since the hippocampus is associated with learning, memory and emotion, on-going stress can halt the production of new neurons and may also affect the speed of connections leading to forgetfulness, emotional distress and decreased ability in communication. One single stressful event can destroy newly created neurons.
- Stress can trigger the brain’s threat response
While the stress hormone (named cortisol) decreases activity in the hippocampus of the brain, it increases the activity in the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s main center for motivation and emotional responses which means it’s responsible for treat perception and the fight-or-flight response. The increased activity caused by stress in this area causes the brain to think we’re in a threating or dangerous situation. In effect, it heightens our emotional reactions causing meltdowns or sudden outbursts. It also restricts our ability to take in new information.
It’s not difficult to see all the reasons why we need to find healthy ways to cope with caregiver stress. Nearly every health problem lists stress as a major risk factor.
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Feel free to call us at (888) 285-0093. Thanks for joining us for today’s Tuesday Tips for Caregivers and we’ll see you again next week!