An overwhelming amount of evidence exists documenting the harmful effects of stress on the human body and brain. In this article, we’ll focus primarily on its effects on cognition.

The Stress Epidemic (And Your Brain)

“Numerous studies show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress for American adults.”

The above quote is courtesy of The American Institute of Stress (AIS), a non-profit organization that researches the effects of stress. While the workplace is not the only setting where one experiences anxiety, it is the most damaging. Researchers found a link between workplace stress and the rising cases of hypertension and heart attack. In fact, in large cities such as New York and Los Angeles, any police officer who suffers a heart attack is presumed to have suffered a work-related injury (or death). (1)

Experiencing physically and psychologically harmful pressure regularly has sort of been “accepted” as the norm in American society. Ridiculously, some people carry their stress like a badge – a potentially-deadly badge – of (misplaced) honor. Worse, many workplaces encourage it as part of their so-called “culture” – an egregious and borderline unforgivable error in judgment.

It is fair to state that the prevalence and severity of stress have risen in parallel with the hyper-competitiveness of the global economy. But one needn’t take our word for it.

Let’s take a gander at some of the statistics gleaned from recent research:

  • 61% say that work is the most common source of stress.
  • Of those reporting workplace-related stress, 36% cite an unmanageable workload as the main reason; 31% cite people (including management) issues; 20% poor work-life balance; and 8% mention shaky job security.
  • U. S. employers lose more than $300 billion a year to occupational stress through absenteeism, illness, and lost productivity.

The effects of these issues on our health and well-being are so devastating that the World Health Organization – the world’s preeminent public health authority – has labeled stress the “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century.” (2)

The Stress Response

In an everyday stressful situation, our body releases a mix of hormones that produce numerous physiological changes. You’ve probably experienced the shakiness, sweaty palms, and shallow breathing that manifest as effects of stress hormones. Both humans and animals possess this innate response, providing them with the necessary energy to flee from a threatening situation.

The stress response – also referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response – is a vital, automatic component of our survival apparatus. For example, let’s say you’re crossing the street when you see the outline of a vehicle barreling toward you out of the corner of your eye. Now, there is no way for your logical brain to process the stimuli fast enough to save your life. Instead, the automatic part of your brain sends signals to your muscles, instructing them to perform the necessary movements to get you out of the way.  You act out these movements subconsciously, only slightly aware of what you did after the fact. (3)

The problem is not the response but the chronic activation of the reaction that leads to health problems. Everyday issues like financial problems, marital difficulties, work stress, and others can produce a long-term activation of the fight-or-flight response. One obvious, tragic example of this biochemical system gone awry is Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD in troops returning from (often multiple) combat tours.

Stress’ Effects on the Brain

“…cortisol was associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory in asymptomatic younger to middle-aged adults, with the association being evident particularly in women.” (writer’s emphasis) – Echouffo-Tcheugui, et al. (source)

An overwhelming amount of evidence exists documenting the harmful effects of stress on the human body and brain. In this article, we’ll focus primarily on its effects on cognition.

Here is what the latest research concludes about the long-term effects of stress on the brain:

Per a study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, chronic stress causes noticeable physical changes in the brain. Researchers from the University of California at Berkeley observed that people with high levels of anxiety produce brain cells with more myelin (a fatty substance) and fewer neurons. As normal brain signaling requires more neurons and less myelin, researchers posit that chronic stress may lead to impairment of how parts of the brain communicate.

In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers found that healthy young and middle-aged individuals with higher-than-average cortisol levels tested for smaller “total brain volume.” This shrinkage effect is particularly evident in women. In cognitive tests, those with high cortisol levels scored lower on tests for attention, memory, and visual perception. (4)

Researchers from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, Canada found that people who experienced significant stress in childhood – from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse – had more connections between the amygdala and major brain regions. In other words, the amygdala had become “a stronger network hub and possibly a stronger driver of behavior” among the subjects with high levels of childhood anxieties, says Dr. Yuliya Nikolova, one of the study’s researchers. (5)

In a very recent study, researchers from Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois discovered that short-term exposure to stress might be enough to kill neurons in the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the brain region primarily associated with memory consolidation, emotional regulation, and also learning. Researchers from the university say that their next step is to study the potential therapeutic effects of antidepressant medications on these physiological changes brought about by exposure to the stressful situations. (6)

Other Effects of Stress

“You may think illness is to blame for that (headache), your frequent insomnia or (decreased) productivity…but stress may actually be the culprit.” – Mayo Clinic Staff (source)

This article would not be complete without at least a brief discussion of the effects of stress on other areas of the body. Firstly, the vast majority of medical experts agree that, left unchecked, this condition contributes to numerous health conditions, including diabetes, obesity, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart disease.

Stress may manifest as any number of physical ailments, including chest pain, decreased sex drive, digestive troubles, headache, fatigue, muscle pain, sleep disturbance, tension, and stomach pain.

Psychologically, stressful emotions induce anxiety, feelings of overwhelm, inability to concentrate, irritability, low motivation, restlessness, and sadness or depression.

Behaviorally, one may witness the effects of stress as an angry outburst, abuse of alcohol or drugs, acquiring an unhealthy habit (e.g., smoking), changes to appearance, social withdrawal, and others. (5)

Manage Your Stress

Let’s quickly clear up one thing: not all stress is bad! In contrast, some can even be healthy! Consider that work you are putting off for whatever lame reason. Would you prefer that your brain not remind you of the importance of finishing what you start? (If so, you should probably read up on “Work Ethic.”)

Joking aside, while listening to some psychologists talk about the issue, you’d think that it is in your best interest to shun all stressors. There two big problems with such advice:

  1. Completely eliminating it is impossible. A stress response is hardwired into our biological makeup.
  2. You wouldn’t want to eliminate it fully. (Do you like to be self-motivated and focused? Uh-huh, that’s stress.)

Instead, focus your energy on managing – not eliminating or even necessarily avoiding – your stressors. First, put an end to the habitual patterns that do nothing but lead to a stressed-out lifestyle. Here are several pieces of advice to do just that:

1. Be assertive.

When the situation calls for it, you need to act with assertiveness. If you have difficulties standing up for yourself, don’t be ashamed. There are plenty of resources (books, online classes, etc.) that can help you develop this critical skill.

2. Don’t procrastinate.

Procrastination is perhaps the single most significant contributor to a life of never-ending frazzles. Remember this quote: “There is either the pain of self-discipline or the pain of regret.”

Do what needs to be done while choosing not to worry about the rest.


3. Don’t overschedule.

First, make sure you’re – at a minimum – keeping a flexible schedule. Additionally, once you have that schedule, don’t deviate from it. Many people underestimate the amount of work to be done and overestimate the time they have to do it.

Final Thoughts: Understand the importance of balance

Please understand that you have a limited amount of energy that can perform a limited amount of work. No amount of caffeine is going to change this fact. To do your best work and, more importantly, be the best version of yourself, you need to prioritize rest before anything else.

Managing stress certainly necessitates a proactive mindset. A few ways to reduce your exposure to stress:

  • First of all, get regular exercise (at least 45 minutes of moderate exercise, 3-4 times per week).
  • Also, avoid nutrition-deficient food.
  • Furthermore, eat a balanced diet with decent amounts of protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Above all, remember to laugh and keep a sense of humor.
  • Make time for socializing with friends and visiting family.
  • Practice relaxation techniques like meditation, yoga, tai-chi.
  • Finally, treat yourself to a professional massage once a month. (7)