The Brain and Stress: What it does and why

by London Westley

At some point in our lives, we’ve all encountered stress. It can be either when you’re trying to get to, or are at your job, trying to perform a complex task, in an intense or tense moment, or having suffered some kind of trauma. Your mind is a haze of thoughts and you can’t think properly. You start to stutter words. Then, your heart rate and blood pressure increase, your hands start to shake, and adrenaline, a hormone from the adrenal gland right above your kidneys, kicks in. Yet, somehow, your brain continues to perform its basic functions, like taking in oxygen, or allowing you to perform movements. How does your mind keep itself from collapsing under pressure? What conscious and unconscious acts does it do in order to keep you going? And how does it handle trauma, both physical and psychological?

To begin with, stress is regulated by three components: the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal gland, each working in tandem with the other. When the brain senses stress, the brain stem alerts the adrenal glands to send out sugar into your bloodstream, giving you that hyperactive feeling when stress kicks in. Additionally, your hypothalamus sends signals to your pituitary gland, telling it to release a hormone called cortisol in order to keep up the high amounts of sugar in your body, prolonging your stress time. Although the injection of these hormones into our bodies helps us overcome whatever causes our stress, there are, in fact, long term negative effects to prolonged periods of stress.

When the concept of stress hurting your brain is brought up, it’s usually about how stress raises your blood pressure and damages your short term memory. However, the effects go much deeper than that. When you enter a state of stress, the pituitary gland releases cortisol, a hormone used to maintain the high levels of sugar released into your bloodstream, keeping you in heightened, stressed state. This function, which is done to make sure you have the energy needed to overcome the source of your stress, can, if continuously released, damage the hippocampus, a portion of your brain’s limbic system, which controls spatial awareness and long term memory.

The stress-brain loop

Reference: “Is stress affecting your memory and cognition?” (

Also affected by stress are the fluctuations in brain waves. Essentially, there are four kinds of brain waves your mind produces: Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Theta. Beta and Delta waves are connected to feelings such as anxiety and unease and physical aspects like blood pressure. During long periods of stress, your brain stays within the beta and delta waves, when it should be between delta, theta, and alpha. If you stay beta and delta for significant periods of time, this leads to your body producing things like metabolic syndrome and hyperglycemia (excessive blood sugar), high blood pressure, gains in weight, and ultimately, diabetes.

Anatomical changes are not only the byproducts of short term stress, but also long term. When put in prolonged periods of stress, the hippocampus begins to change at a cellular level, which in turn, affects short term memory, learning capabilities, attention span, and perception, as well as the regulation of cortisol in your brain. Uncontrolled levels of cortisol eventually lead to a condition called glucocorticoids, which causes poor sleep habits, inadequate nutrition, and severe emotional distress.

In conclusion, the human brain handles stress by managing the levels of stress you’re in. The hormones it produces are intended to keep you in a state where you can successfully escape or resolve the source of your stress. However, spend too long a time in this state and the brain loses its ability to control your stress levels, leading to many physical and psychological ailments.


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