Stress And The Brain: What You Need To Know To Protect Your Health

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The statistics surrounding stress can be a little scary. It's something that the majority of people are struggling with. According to the American Institute of Stress, 73 percent of people say that they "regularly experience psychological symptoms caused by stress." And that's not all, 77 percent say that they "regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress." 

In addition, stress can have a significant presence in schools, particularly colleges. Harvard Medical School conducted a study that found that “three out of four students reported having experienced at least one stressful event in the last year.” These statistics show that stress is a growing issue. So what effect does it have on us physically?

A healthy brain can increase the longevity of your well-being

How acute and chronic stress affect the brain

Stress isn't just something that you deal with on a small basis. You may think that stress is no big deal because short-term stress is something that most people are struggling with. But, if you know that you have acute stress in your life, it's something that you should handle because stress affects your brain. The effects of stress can vary, potentially impacting numerous systems within your brain and body. It can have an impact on your brain cells, your brain health, and the structure of the brain itself. 

Stress impacts your memory

Acute and chronic stress leads, in some cases, to changes in your memory capabilities. These changes can impact various types of memory, including episodic, semantic, and spatial memory. Researchers in one study split participants up into groups based on the cortisol levels that each person had. Cortisol is released from your body when you're dealing with stress. There are several reasons for this, one being that stress can impact the adrenal steroid receptors, which can lead to a dysregulation in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. This can cause elevated cortisol levels, one of the stress hormones that helps physiological responses like fight-or-flight response to kick in. 

The study found that the group that had the highest levels of cortisol also had the worst memory. This doesn't mean that they were experiencing memory loss just yet, but they experienced symptoms of impaired memory. The study found these results to be true regardless of gender, age, and other factors.

Stress changes the way your brain can function

One of the effects of chronic stress is that it can increase the activity and number of neuron connections in the amygdala. It also causes the signals in your hippocampus (a different part of your brain) to decline. This is the brain region that helps you be able to deal with stress, among other things. Glucocorticoid receptor overexpression has also been seen in these areas of the brain as a response to chronic stress. So, as you have chronic stress, it becomes more difficult for you to handle your stress. 

Stress can also affect the prefrontal cortex. When you are subjected to a stressful situation, network connections within your medial prefrontal cortex are weakened.  This can cause problems with working memory and disrupt the way your brain accurately represents information. Overall, both the hippocampal and amygdaloid neurons can be affected by stress.

Stress changes the size of your brain

There have also been studies done that found that the levels of cortisol in your body are also connected with the gray matter found in your brain. One such study found that "higher serum cortisol was associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory in asymptomatic younger to middle-aged adults."

So, the stress that you're experiencing can have a physical effect on your brain development. This physical effect is then tied with side effects that impair your memory, which will make it difficult for you to learn and operate in your daily functions.

There are other ways that your brain responds to stress as well; these are just a few examples. These examples show why it's so important that you learn how to manage your stress properly. Living a life full of stress is not something that you can simply do, and then just worry about other health problems later. You need to be concerned about it now.


The good news is that there are many ways that you can do this, and many of them are things that you can do on your own.

Learn the symptoms of stress

The first thing that you need to do is realize the importance of identifying your stress. When you learn the symptoms to watch for, you're more easily able to identify when you are experiencing it.

Stress doesn't just impact your mental state; it also impacts your behavior and your physical health as well. Stress may manifest itself in your life in different ways:

  • Irritability- Stressful situations have a way of coming in and taking over your life. They can make it where you can't seem to think about anything else which can make you incredibly irritable when you have to do so. And it can cause difficulties in relationships because you lack the patience that you need in conversations.
  • Insomnia - Stress can make it incredibly difficult to get the rest that you need. You may have a hard time falling asleep at night because you have anxious thoughts running through your mind, or you may wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to fall back asleep because of your stress. Either way, stress makes it difficult for you to get sleep, which makes handling the events of the day even harder.
  • Tummy trouble - Stress can impact your appetite and digestion in many different ways. You may end up eating too much food, especially processed food, that's not good for your body. Or you may end up not eating enough because you lack an appetite. On top of that, stress can cause constipation or diarrhea.
  • Physical pain- When you're experiencing repeated or prolonged stress, you may have several different types of physical pain. This could be headaches, muscle tension in your shoulders, backaches, or chest pains. Different people carry their tension in different places in their body.
  • Difficulty concentrating- As we already learned, stress can have an impact on your brain. This can make it difficult for you to concentrate and remember the things that you need to do. This can make work or school difficult.
  • High blood pressure- Stress may cause short-term increases in blood pressure due to its connection to the fight or flight response. In addition, chronic stress may lead to long-term high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.

This is not an all-inclusive list of symptoms that come along with stress. There can be many others, but these are some of the most common. It's possible for some of these symptoms to feed into others, causing a vicious cycle of every increasing stress. If you're having other symptoms and you're not sure if they're associated with toxic stress or not, it can be helpful to talk to a doctor or therapist about what you're experiencing.

Learn how to manage stress

Sometimes we struggle with stress because we don't have proper time management skills and we're not organized.

This can lead us to be running behind, which only adds to stress constantly. If you learn proper time management skills, it can help you to not have to feel so rushed and stressed as often. And, if you learn how to organize yourself, your house, and your office, you can find things when you need.  Organization, time management, and putting the proper systems in place can help your life to run smoothly, which can eliminate one source of stress that many people experience.

Get exercise often

Exercise can help reduce overstimulation of your stress response system and the effects that stress has on your brain. It can also have a positive effect on your immune function. When you exercise, you are using up the cortisol that's in your body and experiencing a natural stress response. And, since cortisol is one of the hormones that impact the gray matter in your brain, if cortisol levels fall, you may be able to avoid symptoms like memory loss from stress.

It's best to include exercise into your daily routine, but if you're feeling especially stressed, it can even be helpful to just exercise at the moment. It gives you a good outlet for the extra energy that you have and can help give your brain a break from thinking about whatever the situation is that is causing you stress.

Set boundaries and control your schedule

Some stress comes from simply overbooking your schedule. When you want to please others, lead all the groups, and volunteer at every opportunity, you can experience stress and burnout. 

Set your priorities and make sure that you're giving yourself time each day to rest. Include things in your routine that help you to recharge and let off steam.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
A healthy brain can increase the longevity of your well-being

Reach out for help

There are times in life when it's best to get professional help. If you are struggling to overcome your stress or believe you are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, consider talking to a therapist. They can help you identify if there are any areas in your life where you are causing yourself additional stress. Then, they can help you identify what behaviors you need to change and strategies you can implement to take control of these parts of life.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Recent research shows that online therapy can provide valuable resources to those looking to manage stress. In a study published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, the effectiveness of online cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) when treating generalized anxiety disorder was assessed. Treatment consisted of a nine-week online CBT program, after which participants reported significant improvement in symptoms of anxiety, including feelings of worry. This led researchers to conclude that online therapy is an efficacious form of treatment for anxiety. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works by helping individuals reframe negative thought patterns that may be underlying unwanted actions or emotions, such as stress or worry.

Online therapy for stress

As mentioned above, online therapy platforms can provide you with useful tools to help manage stress and can improve mind body connection. With BetterHelp, you’ll be able to participate in therapy from wherever you can get an internet connection, without the added stress of dealing with traffic, sitting in a waiting room, or missing work. You’ll be able to connect with your licensed counselor through videoconference, voice call, live chat, or messaging. These therapists may be able to help you with a variety of issues, including stress and mood disorders. You can also reach out to your therapist outside of sessions—just send them a message and they will get back to you as soon as possible. The mental health professionals at BetterHelp know how to guide you toward a calmer, more balanced life. Read below for counselor reviews, from those who have experienced similar issues.

Counselor reviews

“Ms. Daniels is very attentive and I always feel like she actually listens to me. She’s also helped me realize how to effectively deal with stressors as they come.”

“I'm only three sessions in with Enrique and already he's been helpful to me in dealing with stress and all of the related issues. Enrique is intelligent, he's experienced, and he has a nice way about him that made me feel comfortable with him from the start. Enrique is an excellent discussion partner, really makes me think, and he keeps me on track like a coach would. That's on track to talking through the issues and to a better me. I highly recommend this guy.”


Some of the stress that people experience in life is out of their control. A therapist can help you learn how to work through these situations healthily. 

Therapy is not just for people that are dealing with major life trauma or serious mental health challenges. If you are experiencing anxiety and stress that is impacting your day-to-day life, don't be afraid to reach out to get the help that you need.

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