Hands frantically shaking, I unhooked myself from the harness. After trying out the swing on the zip line course, I would do anything to be back on solid ground again.
Hanging precariously over the edge of the balcony, I unclipped one last safety hook. I look over to my friend and breathe a sigh of relief even though my hands are still shaking and mind cannot focus.
With alarm on her face she says “You’re unhooked.” At that moment, I realized that I was just standing on a plank of wood high up in a tree with nothing to prevent me from plummeting to the ground.
I knew that the swing affected me. With my fear of heights, swinging from a tree like Tarzan was bound to freak me out. I had no idea that I would be affected that much, however.
Normally,I am a sensible person. I understand the importance of always being secured when you are on a zipline course. What had caused me to make the mistake, then? Does stress affect the brain that much? Does stress cause brain damage??
Stress and the Brain: 3 Major Players
The hippocampus is a small, seahorse shaped area of the brain that has several important functions. It helps with spacial awareness so if you are so good at navigating a map that you might as well be a GPS, thank your hippocampus.
It is also essential for gaining new memories. Without the hippocampus, you would be able to remember what you already know, but you would not be able to learn new things.
The frontal lobes are one of the most evolved brain regions in humans. This region of the brain separates people from animals by giving us a higher level of thinking that regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions.
Because of the frontal lobes, we are able to use information in a “sketchpad” like manner to solve our problems.
The amygdala is vital for creating the stress response and responds strongly to emotion, especially fear and anxiety. It is essential for survival in a fight or flight situation.
Cortisol: The Stress Hormone
Cortisol is one of the main hormones released when you are stressed. When there is a threat in the environment, cortisol increases energy to different parts of the body giving you a chance for survival. It can also make it easier for you to learn from a dangerous experience giving you an advantage if you encounter the threat again.
There are health risks from prolonged exposure to cortisol including an increased risk for diabetes, hypertension and arterial disease.
The Effects of Stress Hormones on the Brain
Research has shown that people who have experienced traumatic stress tend to have a smaller hippocampus. Researchers examined the brains of combat veterans and victims of childhood abuse using MRI (a noninvasive way to get an image).
They found that people who experienced traumatic stress tended to have a smaller hippocampus.
They also found that as the hippocampal volume decreased in combat veterans, their memory for words also decreased.
In another study, the de Quervain research group gave stress hormone to a group of young subjects after giving them words to learn.
The research group them measured the brain activation of these subjects using a PET scan (which can noninvasively measure blood flow to the brain). They found that blood flow was drastically decreased in important parts of the frontal lobes.
Even more concerning, the subjects had great difficulty recalling the words that they learned just 24 hours earlier.
Dr. Daniela Kaufer of UC Berkely discovered that chronic stress can disrupt the balance of cells in the brain potentially strengthening the connection between the amygdala and hippocampus and reducing the connection between the frontal lobes and the hippocampus.
If this is true, it would help explain why people who have been exposed to chronic stress tend to be more sensitive in new stressful situations.
More research needs to be done in this area, but it illustrates how stress can have long term effects.
In conclusion, there is a strong connection between stress and certain changes in the brain. The structural changes in the brain that come from stress can help explain why some people feel the effects of stress long after the stressor is gone.
There is good news, however. The brain is very plastic– it can change and form new connections. This means that there is hope that these chronic stress symptoms can be healed with the right treatments.
If you think that your brain has been affected by stress, I encourage you to first talk to your doctor. They can see if there is a medical reason behind your issues or help with medication if you are open to that.
I would also encourage you to find ways to reduce the effects of stress that are effective for you whether it is by making life changes or becoming more physically active. There are a lot of ways to reduce stress.
If you are stressed out, you can talk about it in the comment section below. What do you think can help? What steps do you think you need to take? Let me know below!