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How stress is actually affecting your brain

Cosmopolitan (UK) logo Cosmopolitan (UK) 5 days ago Catriona Harvey-Jenner
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"I'm stressed" are two words that are thrown around a lot. But while stress can sometimes feel like a non-tangible concept to those who aren't going through it, its repercussions can actually be quite serious.

The impact stress can have on a person's body is significant, with physical symptoms ranging from teeth-grinding to a lowered immune system; an increased heartbeat and more. These symptoms can come and go, but scientists have recently delved into the physiological repercussions of stress on the human brain, and the findings are pretty alarming.

a close up of a map: How stress is actually affecting your brain © MissTuni - Getty Images How stress is actually affecting your brain

A new study carried out by professors at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, published this month in the journal Neurology, has revealed that stress not only leads to a decline in memory - but can also make the brain physically shrink.

The research assessed more than 2,000 healthy, middle-aged participants, and found that those who showed high levels of cortisol in their blood - a hormone that's released following stress - gave poorer performances in memory tests. Further analysis revealed the brain volume of those with high levels of cortisol was also smaller than average, indicating a physical reduction in size of grey matter.

The likely reason for the way stress has been shown to physically impact the brain is all to do with the 'fight or flight' bodily response. When cortisol is released, so too is adrenaline, intended to power the body to flee or defend itself in a dangerous situation. As a result of these hormones being released into the system, non-imperative bodily functions such as digestion, reproduction and growth are temporarily suppressed.

But when the body perceives continued stress, cortisol will remain at a high level, and the brain's function will be lesser than normal for a longer period of time.

While this study only offers a snapshot of the effects of stress at one point in time for the participants involved, it does remind us how important it is to reduce stressors in life if we can. Your brain will thank you for it.

Related: 13 things you shouldn't say to someone who is struggling with their mental health (Provided by INSIDER)

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