Stress and the Brain

Stress actually changes our brains and negatively impacts our physical and mental health

We are living in stressful times and finding strategies to manage is vital to our health. This includes our physical health, mental health and overall wellbeing. 


We hear the word stress used a lot but do we know:

  • what is stress
  • what stress does to our brain
  • what we can do to reduce our negative stress response..

Stress is Important

Stress is part of life. Stress is complex.

It can be positive, called eustress, or negative when it is distress, however, generally when we talk about stress, we are thinking of it as negative.

The things that cause us stress can be single, repeated, or ongoing events. They can be anticipated or unexpected. They may be internal and self-initiated ie putting pressure on ourself, or from an eternal source when something happens to you.

It as a basic response to threat or perceived threat. It is necessary to protect us in dangerous situations when we are at real risk. It is vital as a survival response and not something we would want to be without. It can also help us prepare for something when we need to achieve optimal performance, for example athletes.

The problem comes when our body has a stress response to something that we perceive as a stress which in the scale of things is not a significant threat.

Continuous stimuli of the stress response has a negative impact on our overall mental and physical health and wellbeing.

    How stress affects our brain

    The hypothalamus pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis is activated by stress.  This releases cortisol which gets our body ready for immediate action. When we are constantly releasing cortisol, it affects our brain. 

    • it increases the activity level and number of connections within the amygdala – the brains fear centre.
    • this increased level affects the hippocampus, the area of the brain linked to learning and memories. 
    • in turn our ability to control stress deteriorates as activity in the hippocampus affects the HPA axis.  When this is weakened it is harder to control stress.


    Too much cortisol actually causes the brain to shrink in size over time.  Synaptic connections are lost between neurons, with shrinking of the pre-frontal cortex.  This part of the brain manages concentration, decision making and judgement.  When fewer connections are made in the hippocampus learning and remembering things can be harder.

    This explains why when we are feeling stressed, we can’t remember things, make decisions or think clearly.

    The good news

    The impact on the brain can be reversed. Taking action to reduce the release and impact of cortisol means in time the size of the hippocampus increases along with our memory and concentration. If only that was easy!

    Factors affecting our ability to cope

    This is a multifaceted area including:

    • our level of control
    • the social and support network we have in place
    • how we think and our attitudes for example optimism
    • openness to change
    • self-care skills.  

    What we can do

    This list gives us many areas we can address to help manage stress. I am always talking about the importance of self-care. It is vital we make it a priority to enable us to maintain the resources we need to meet all the demands on us.

    Research has evidenced the importance of this and also how we go about it for most benefit to wellbeing. We have ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ identified by the New Economics Foundation as Connect, Be active, Take notice, Keep Learning and Give. Also, Action for Happiness have their ‘Ten Keys to Happiness’. Both of these models are evidence based and give clear practical ideas to help.

    Take a minute to think about your approach to self-care and make a commitment to yourself to make it a priority.

      Contact us for details

      Protea Solutions provides a range of training options to support employee mental health including Mental Health First Aid courses accredited by MHFA England. These are offered as both public open courses and run within organisations. Contact us to find out how we can help you support your employees or contact us if you would like to find out more information and join our next MHFA Networking and Support Group.


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