Some doctors and medical researchers have approached this question by asking it in a slightly different way. They have started by asking if stress actually does affect or change the brain. The answer is “Yes.”
Studies have shown that stress does indeed cause changes in this amazing structure because chemical changes that take place in the body in stressful situations have an effect on the chemical state of the brain. In fact, continuous studies that start from the chemical viewpoint and go on to look at mental illness, depression and anxiety show a definite connection.
Apart from the complex field of study that shows connections between stress and long-term changes such as mental problems, anxiety and sleep disorders, there is a very natural process taking place. Only when this stress continues for extended periods does it become a medical issue.
Human beings, like many other animals, have systems that can sense danger naturally and almost immediately. Signals from the brain trigger the release of adrenaline, the sugar content of the blood increases, the heart rate goes up, along with blood pressure. This all happens in a matter of seconds and then the body begins to produce cortisol. This hormone has the responsibility of keeping the sugar levels and pressure levels up so that the animal can escape from the danger.
This process is not only interesting in animals, it is also absolutely necessary in many situations. However, as mentioned earlier, should a stressful or dangerous situation continue for long periods, changes in the human body can lead to illness and other troubling medical conditions. Some researchers have tried to determine if this process not only causes temporary changes in the brain that are necessary for survival, but also causes permanent changes in the brain.
Some research shows that significant stress might actually destroy some of our brain cells. Larger amounts of cortisol administered over a period of weeks actually destroyed brain cells in laboratory studies. The very chemical that helps animals survive danger and stress can destroy important cells over a longer period of time. One study showed that higher cortisol levels killed the very brain cells that help us remember episodes from our past.
Another study indicated that the prolonged presence of high levels of cortisone caused the brain cells to attempt to send signals continuously. This extreme level of activity over a long period literally worked some brain cells to death.
Many scientists now believe that it is not possible to completely and accurately measure how stress affects an individual. Response to stressful situations varies with how a person interprets the threat. Each person also has a unique chemical makeup in the brain that adds to the difficulty of diagnosis. Some research shows that people can actually change the chemistry slightly by understanding what a stressful situation is and then being prepared for it. While this doesn’t change the affects of stress on the brain completely, it does make a difference.
Simply put, the science of the brain and the effects of stress on the brain will continue to be studied with great interest.