It’s common to feel stressed. That overwhelming, chest tightening, burst of energy feeling is familiar to everyone. Whether you’re busy at work, managing your finances, or preparing for a family gathering — stress is everywhere.

“Most recently, extra stressors involving the pandemic have been influential factors on stress. Uncertainties in life contribute to peoples’ sensation of increasing stress,” said Samuel J. Stelmach, physician at Iredell Internal Medicine.

Stress every now and then is inevitable. But, when short-term stress turns into longer, chronic stress, it can pose a serious problem. Since April is National Stress Awareness Month, it’s the perfect time to learn more about stress and its effects on your body.

You may know that prolonged stress can affect your heart, skin, stomach, and mood, but did you know stress can also affect your brain?

What happens when I get stressed?
The symptoms of stress are actually your body’s way of responding to a threat. This response is commonly known as the fight or flight response.

Your brain releases hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, into the blood to help your body address a challenge.

“Stress may put you in this response and can increase your heart rate, blood pressure, glucose levels, and breathing rate, and decrease your ‘less important’ functions at that time, including decreased function of your gastrointestinal tract,” said Stelmach.

After the threat has passed, your body will return to normal. However, when your body is in this fight or flight response too often, it can cause various problems and harm your brain.

Chronic stress can affect your brain in various ways, including impairing your memory, causing mental health problems, and even physically changing your brain.

According to Stelmach, when you’re stressed, your body reacts to the threat by releasing the hormone, cortisol, to help your body return to a steady balance.

“Long-term levels of high stress lead to excessive cortisol in the body. This can directly affect the brain as it can disrupt the connections between various brain cells, including portions of the brain involved in learning and memory,” he said.

In this way, stress can cause you to have problems remembering things.

Even minor stress can cause forgetfulness. For example, if you’re stressed at work, you may be more likely to forget a project, task, or even where you put your car keys.

Mental Health
Prolonged stress can affect your mental health by causing anxiety and depression. Chronic stress may cause you to feel uneasy or cause feelings of excessive worry.

“Long-term stress can predispose you to uncontrolled anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and depression,” said Stelmach.

In addition, stress may cause you to withdraw from social situations, which will only harm your mental health even further. While you may want to be alone when you’re stressed, social interaction is important.

Brain Changes
Chronic stress can cause an overproduction of cortisol, which results in brain cell changes and even brain shrinkage.

Studies have shown that chronic stress can directly affect and kill new cells in the brain. Therefore, a very stressful situation can make new brain cells more vulnerable.

“A constant state of stress in the brain can cause certain changes in brain structures that may make the brain even more receptive to stress. This cycle can put the brain in a constant fight or flight state,” said Stelmach.

“Brain cells themselves can shift into a state that may lead to abnormal workings or connections,” he added.

How can I save my brain?
It’s important to remember that stress is everywhere, and not all stress is harmful. However, if you find yourself in a state of constant stress, managing it is crucial.

To manage stress effectively, try to recognize what stresses you, and find healthy ways to help you cope. For example, you might try some simple coping strategies such as deep breathing, taking time to exercise, or talking with a friend. And as always, do your best to stay positive and steer clear of negative people and situations.

If you continue to have prolonged stress, don’t hesitate to reach out to your primary care provider or a mental health professional, who can help you discover healthy ways to cope with stress. A mental health professional can also help you understand the source of your stress, how you’re reacting to it, and ways to resolve the problem.

Samuel J. Stelmach is a physician at Iredell Internal Medicine, located at 757 Bryant Street in Statesville. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Dr. Stelmach, please call 704-873-5658. New patients are welcome.

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