Does Stress Cause Brain Damage? The Answer Will Surprise You

Zip Line

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??

The Brain

Stress and the Brain: 3 Major Players

The Hippocampus

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

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

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 Effect of Stress Hormones on the Brain

Research has shown that people who have experienced traumatic stress tend to have a smaller Researchhippocampus. 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 changeable. This means that there is hope that the changes on the brain that result from stress 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!


  1. Hi EVA,
    Very informative article!
    Before I read this article, I thought stress was just a luxury for super busy guys. I didn’t much care about it.
    But after almost a tragic accident a few year ago, I now realize that I lost some short term memories. Perhaps, it might related to traumatic stress.
    I frequently forget what was doing just a moment ago. Something like this happen to me now and then.
    Do you have any suggest to improve my situation?
    I bookmark your site and plan to check in very often.
    Thanks for sharing.
    All the best!

    • It would be best to check with a doctor first to make sure that it is stress. If it is stress, there are many things that you could do at home, like starting a meditation practice (I have a post on here that tells how to begin a meditation practice). You could also try deep breathing and even yoga. There are so many things that can help. I wish you all the best.

  2. Hello there! I found your article very informative and interesting. I read your article that stress can cause brain changes. I have a friend who is always stress and i felt that his attitude and emotion changes. He’s more cranky and get angry fast also his attention doesn’t last long when I talk to him. Do you think stress is the cause of it or other things caused that?

    • It could be the stress. Stress is known to make people crankier and to make fly off the handle more quickly.

      He could also have medical issues that are making him act that way. 

  3. Eva,
    This is a great article and thank you so much for sharing this. I always knew that stress could have a damaging impact on the body but did not realize the extent of it. I myself am in a rather stressful career and have often wondered what the prolonged exposure could do to me. I don’t believe that it is effecting me mentally however I will now be more conscious of it.
    I am very lucky to be living in a very picturesque part of my country surrounded by lakes and mountains. When I have a stressful day at work I come home and sit on my patio…..with a beverage usually….and take in the view which generally causes my stress to melt away.
    Thanks again for the great article.

    • I am sorry to hear about the stress that you are experiencing from work. Nature can definitely help you heal. Thank you for the compliment!

  4. This is an amazing article and very informative. I was been exposed to a lot of stress back in year 2014 when my mom needs to undergo for liver abscess operation which lead me to selling my traditional business which is Gym business. It was the a year of my emmotional state of pain and I am very stress that time. What I did is I go to church and pray and meditate, understanding everything that it has to be done as it is the way of life. I always listen to calming zen music on youtube site and even download them. Well I believe in my experienced that music helps a lot in recovering pain. What do you think of music in helping a person to recover in a very stressful situation? I will bookmark this page. Thanks for the read.

    • I think that music is a really great way to help recover. There is actually an amazing documentary on netflix called Alive Inside that looks at the effect of music on people with dementia. The change that you can see is truly amazing. I wish you smooth healing.

  5. Hi, Eva!
    Thanks for this informative article!
    Stress causes a lot of problems and impacts our health, our brain, our emotional state.
    I am very emotional and sensitive, so for me dealing with stress isn’t easy, but I try to manage.
    Usually, stress causes me anxiety, and it’s hard for me to do what I need.
    When I am stressed, it is hard to think clearly. How is for you? Do you feel that stress somehow impacts brain?
    Meditation, walking in nature, reading a book, writing help me to reduce stress.

    I also wrote an article about how stress impacts our brain:

    • Yes, I definitely think that stress impacts the brain. Unfortunately for me, I cannot think clearly if I am too stressed out.

      Thanks for letting us know how you manage stress. I bet that it will help a lot of people!

  6. I can tell you put a lot of effort into this article because you added a lot of detail and knowledge. In school, I am a teenager, and I learned that some stress is okay, but it’s ironic because school is one of the most stressful things in life. You give a lot of content about what stress does to our brain , such a releasing cortisol for our survival, but the fact that it increases diabetes is scary! Thank you for sharing this information, and I will come back for more knowledge like this one.

    • Thanks, Marques. It is ironic that you go to school to learn and grow smarter, but it can cause a lot of stress. With school, it is so important to prioritize your health. If you are not eating well and sleeping well, you probably will not do well in school.

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