What is Chronic Stress Doing to Your Brain?

One could argue that stress is an everyday and even healthy aspect of life.  However, the stress induced by last twenty-one months of the CoVid 19 pandemic (and counting),  is in a league of its own.  Natural disasters, while stressful, are also generally short lived and geographically limited.  CoVid-19, unfortunately, is neither.  CoVid has upended our lives in unimaginable ways that have not been limited to our sense of health and well-being.  The policies that have been implemented to deal with this crisis have led to massive upheavals in our way of life and resulted in a loss of economic security and social connection.  As it continues to unfold, it has become a chronic stressor that has taken a psychological toll on everyone, young and old alike. 

Long-term stress impacts health in a myriad of ways.  Here’s a closer look specifically of how it impacts your brain.

  1. Increased risk of mental illness.  In response to chronic stress, the brain changes its structure where there are more myelin producing cells and fewer neurons formed. ¹  These changes may explain why those experiencing chronic stress have a greater tendency to mood and anxiety disorders later in life. ²
  2. Change in brain structure.  Ongoing stress affects hormones in the brain, such as cortisol. Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus – the part of the brain involved in developing new memories, learning and emotion. ³ These changes are more often seen in the brains of depressed people as compared to healthy people. ⁴
  3. Heightened compulsive and fear-driven behaviours.  Under stress, the putamen which is located at the base of the forebrain shows greater activity, which has been correlated with hoarding and other compulsive behaviours. ⁵  Irrational fear based behaviour can arise from another part of the brain, called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and override the brain’s ability for rational decision-making. ⁶
  4. Shrinkage of the prefrontal cortex. Research shows that the brain can lose volume, due to major depression or chronic stress, which can lead to both emotional and cognitive impairment.  Certain genes get triggered which results in a loss of connections between brain cells and leads to loss of brain volume in the prefrontal cortex.  ⁷,⁸
  5. Enlargement of the amygdala.  Stress has been shown to increase the size of the amygdala, the part of the brain that assesses and responds to environmental threats and challenges.  Cortisol, a hormone that is produced is part of the stress response, is thought to hard wire the pathways that cause the brain to be predisposed to a constant state of fight or flight.  ⁹, ¹⁰

Ways to Overcome Stress

Thankfully, he structure of your brain is constantly undergoing changes through neuroplasticity, the process by which the brain continues to remodel itself. Mindset, behavior, and chronic stress are never fixed.

Try some of these techniques to improve your brain’s structure, connectivity and resilience.

  1. Mindfulness meditation.  Hands down, mindfulness meditation is the brain training for improving your brain’s resilience. This exercise is an excellent place to start. ¹¹
  2. Go for a walk (ideally outside).  Exercise not only combats inflammation, but also increases the production of new brain cells (specifically in the hippocampus).
  3. Reach out.  Connect with people you care about and care about you.
  4. Take control of the things you can.
  5. Get help when you need it. Know that you are not alone. Remember there is no shame or blame in however you feel right now. Don’t be shy in getting the support you need to be well. Show yourself the same kindness and compassion that you would to your best friend.


1/ Chetty S, Friedman AR, Taravosh-Lahn K, Kirby ED, Mirescu C, Guo F, Krupik D, Nicholas A, Geraghty A, Krishnamurthy A, Tsai MK, Covarrubias D, Wong A, Francis D, Sapolsky RM, Palmer TD, Pleasure D, Kaufer D. Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Mol Psychiatry. 2014;19(12):1275-1283. doi:10.1038/mp.2013.190

2/ Sanders R. New evidence that chronic stress predisposes brain to mental illness. UC Berkely News Center. Published February 11, 2014.

3/ Peter J. Gianaros, J. Richard Jennings, Lei K. Sheu, Phil J. Greer, Lewis H. Kuller, Karen A. Matthews, Prospective reports of chronic life stress predict decreased grey matter volume in the hippocampus, NeuroImage. 2007, 35(2) :795-803. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.10.045.

4/ Roiser JP, Sahakian BJ. Hot and cold cognition in depression. CNS Spectrums. 2013;18(3):139-149. doi:10.1017/S1092852913000072

5/ Gillan CM, Robbins TW, Sahakian BJ, van den Heuvel OA, van Wingen G. The role of habit in compulsivity. Eur Neuropsychopharmacol. 2016;26(5):828-840. doi:10.1016/j.euroneuro.2015.12.033

6/Hiser J, Koenigs M. The Multifaceted Role of the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex in Emotion, Decision Making, Social Cognition, and Psychopathology. Biol Psychiatry. 2018;83(8):638-647. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.10.030

7/Mariotti A. The effects of chronic stress on health: new insights into the molecular mechanisms of brain-body communication. Future Sci OA. 2015;1(3):FSO23. Published 2015 Nov 1. doi:10.4155/fso.15.21

8/ Yale University. (2012, August 12). How stress and depression can shrink the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 10, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120812151659.htm



11/ https://www.mindful.org/the-mindfulness-of-breathing-exercise-with-neuroscientist-amishi-jha/

Tasleem Kassam