This 60-Year Study Revealed What Stress Can Really Do To Your Brain Over Time

by Julia Guerra

Every body reacts to stress in its own way. For me, stress comes in the form of a debilitating stomach ache; for my mom, it leads to a complete loss of appetite; for you, maybe you get headaches, or your skin breaks out in hives. Anxieties can translate to in-the-moment physical responses, but have you ever thought of the long-term effects of nerves, like how stress affects your brain over time? I know myself, and I rarely think of stress in terms of the future — I deal with it as it comes, and I move on. But, like any kind of shock to the system, stress can have a significant impact on both your body and your brain, even years after the fact.

Per The American Institute of Stress, to this day, experts have a hard time putting a finger on one all-encompassing definition of stress. This is because, TBH, everything and anything in this life, depending on the circumstances, can become stressful. But, for the sake of this article, Dr. Bradley Nelson, a veteran holistic physician and author of the book The Emotion Code, sums up stress as “those little nagging messages about unfinished business in the back of your mind that pop up at inopportune moments when you're not in a position to act.” Commitments you might not have kept, looming deadlines, conflict with a loved one or co-worker, Nelson tells Elite Daily, are all perfect examples of stress-inducing situations.

But it’s not just those huge, traumatic moments in life that can trigger major stressors and lead to long-term effects. According to a new study, little, everyday stressors may be just as significant.

For the study, which has been published in the medical journal Neurology, researchers explored how stress affects the brain long-term by first analyzing cognitive data from 2,231 middle-aged participants involved in the Framingham Heart Study (which, BTW, first began in 1948). Of that number, 2,018 participants underwent a fasted MRI to measure their brain volumes and track the rise and fall of their blood cortisol levels (aka the stress hormone).

Before I get ahead of myself here, in order to understand the results of this study, you need to know what stress actually does to the brain the moment anxieties build up and boil over. Basically, when you’re experiencing stress, your body interprets the feeling as a source of danger, mental health counselor Danielle Forshee, LLC explains. When this happens, your fight or flight mode turns on, in which “a cascade of hormones” — aka cortisol — course through your body and lead to a quickened heart rate, high blood pressure, a ton of energy, and a loss of focus and attention on anything but the issue at hand. At the same time, Forshee tells Elite Daily, your body prepares your physical muscles for action. Sounds exhausting, right?

So, after the first round of tests, CNN reports, the 2,018 participants went about their merry way and were brought back to the lab for reevaluations eight years later. First, their blood cortisol levels were tested, and then participants were asked a series of memory and cognitive questions to test the potential effects that stress had had on their brains over the years. Sure enough, those with high levels of stress also had high levels of memory loss, according to the study's results. Coincidence? Science thinks not — which, if what Forshee says is true, isn’t all that surprising, considering the more stress you have, the less attention you’re probably focusing on other things.

What's more, as per ScienceDaily, the study's lead author Sudha Seshadri, M.D., a professor of neurology at UT Health San Antonio, said in a statement that the busyness of everyday life certainly isn't helping to keep your stress levels low. In fact, Seshadri argued, the stressors of overworking yourself now can lead to brain damage later on in life. In other words, try your best to chill out now if you want to reduce these risks in the future. Seshadri explained,

When we are afraid, when we are threatened in any way, our cortisol levels go up. This study adds to the prevailing wisdom that it's never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.

In addition to the ways in which stress affects the brain, stress can also mess with other parts of the body. Nelson refers to these negative effects as true “emotional baggage,” because it likely means the stress itself was never properly processed or understood, and that's why it's causing both emotional and physical distress in the long-term. Having said that, it’s important to be more mindful of what everyday occurrences are causing you stress, that you take the necessary steps to process them fully, and try your best to let the little things roll off your shoulder.

In order to reduce stress as it comes, Poppy Jamie, founder of the mindfulness app Happy Not Perfect, tells Elite Daily she suggests things like deep diaphragm breaths, as well as showing compassion and expressing gratitude every day through a journal, or even through guided meditation practices, like Happy Not Perfect’s "Chill The F**K Out" session, or the "Anxiety Killer Breath" track on the app.

Taking note of how you respond to stress in the moment can also be a game changer, life coach Katie Sandler adds. “Get off of auto pilot and become more mindful/aware of your personal triggers of stress and how to you interactively intervene on the things that you can,” she tells Elite Daily over email. "Knowledge is power," Sandler says, and it's worth going that extra mile for the sake of your mental health.