Everyone experiences stress at some time in his or her life. Sometimes, the tension is simply the effect of everyday events, such as work duties or family responsibilities. But at other times, momentous events, such as changes in your circumstances, violence or experiencing a natural disaster can occur that increase your tension to the point of physical and mental damage.
Research shows that extremely stressful events can cause changes in the brain that can lead to cognitive decline in later years. Understanding how the brain reacts to severe stress can help you to minimize the damaging effects.
Varying Degrees of Stress-Related Reactions
At its most basic level, stress is defined as the brain’s response to a demand. People experience different levels of stressful reactions every day, throughout their lives. You may experience stress when struggling to achieve your academic goals, raising your children or planning an important social event, and the stress-related reaction will not affect your brain negatively. However, sustained stress with a negative aspect, or a single severe stress event, can create the physical, mental and emotional changes that lead to cognitive decline in later years.
How the Brain Reacts to Stressful Events
Most people have learned about the effects of tension and anxiety on the body, with increased risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, digestive problems, sleep disorders and muscle tension. They cause an increase in the production of cortisol, an important hormone in the body. Excessive amounts of cortisol affect the way the body and brain function. The brain itself also experiences the effects, actually shrinking in size after periods of sustained or severe reactions.
Effects on the Brain
Chronic tension can occur from a job with heavy responsibilities, from dealing with a family member with a debilitating illness or from living in a family situation that involves the threat of violence. Severe tension and anxiety can occur in individuals who are the victims of crime, individuals in combat or those who have survived a major natural disaster.
How the Brain Protects Itself from Stress
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to form new connections in order to protect itself from adverse circumstances. In many cases, the brain can “fix itself,” by creating new pathways for brain chemicals to continue to do their jobs, transmitting thoughts, emotions and reactions. However, under severe circumstances, the brain may do other things to protect itself, blocking out memories and emotions. These protective reactions may become permanent, affecting the brain’s ability to function normally.
Managing Stress-Related Effects Can Help Avoid Cognitive Decline
Recognizing stressful situations and taking steps to manage your body and brain reactions can help to protect you from the most harmful effects of stressful events. Health experts recommend management techniques, as part of your overall health regimen.
Make sure you get regular exercise to avoid the most damaging effects of tension and anxiety on the body. Exercise also helps your brain to stay healthy. Find ways to quiet your mind and emotions, through meditation, mindfulness, reading or working at hobbies. You may find that spending time with family and friends helps you to manage your stress effectively.
Studies on stress-related reactions on cognitive function suggest that individuals who experience extremely stressful events should take particular care in managing their stress to prevent problems with cognitive function later in life. Whether you exercise, meditate, do biofeedback or go to counseling, managing your stress effectively can have a significant impact on your cognitive health as the years pass.