That rapid pounding that you hear in your brain, that constant industrial vise like pressure that you feel is known to damage the function of our brains. It’s found that to maintain a healthy brain structure along with connectivity, the easy cure is to just reduce stress.
Researchers in neuroscience has found that children and young adults who are exposed to chronic stress early in their lives, are prone to more mental health issues such as mood disorders and anxiety later in their lives, which also includes difficulty learning.
It’s known that post-traumatic stress disorder has the ability to trigger changes in the structure of the brain, which includes how much of our brain we use, along with the size and the connectivity of the amygdala.
What’s been discovered is understanding exactly how chronic stress affects brain structure once as adults and how it functions. It’s been found that elevated levels of stress generates the overproduction of myelin, while producing fewer neurons.
How Stress Changes The Neural Networks
It’s known that our brain contains both white and gray matter. The gray matter is loaded with nerve cell bodies which are responsible for the operation of the brain’s higher executive functions, such as computing, advanced decipher, and decision-making.
The white matter is comprised of axons, which creates a network of interconnected fibers which bonds the neurons, while creating a communications network between the various brain regions.
The white matter is referred to as such because it’s a white fatty myelin sheathing which surrounds the axons, allowing it to speed up the flow of the electrical signals between the brain regions.
What was extensively studied was the hippocampus, which provided insight into how this white matter changed under conditions such as autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression.
What the hippocampus does is it regulates our emotions and memory, while also playing a key role in mental disorders. It’s also known to shrink when under extended periods of chronic stress.
What happens is that the wires harden, which results in too much white matter in certain areas of the brain. Then the brain attempts to trim the fat through neural pruning, this to maintain efficiency as well as streamlining better communication within the brain.
Cortisol Triggers Malfunction In The Stem Cells
Cortisol, which is known as the stress hormone, is thought to create a domino effect between the hippocampus and the amygdala, which creates a vicious cycle of the brain becoming predisposed to the “fight-or-flight” scenario.
Chronic stress has the ability to flip a switch in the stem cells which turns them into a different cell which inhibits connections to the prefrontal cortex, which improves learning and memory.
What the researchers found was that chronic stress made the stem cells in the hippocampus mature quicker into another type of cell known as the oligodendrocyte, which produces the myelin which sheaths the nerve cells.
The role that these oligodendrocytes play long-term and possibly permanently, is that it makes changes in the brain which potentially sets the stage for mental health issues later in life.
The Effects Of Chronic Stress
What chronic stress does is it decreases the number of stem cells which mature into neurons, which possibly provides the explanation why stress affects learning and memory.
The brain usually doesn’t produce enough oligodendrocytes on its own from the neural stem cells, this similar to a vine which spreads out and wraps itself around the axons, which insulates as well as supports them.
Test subjects with high levels of cortisol caused by chronic stress had fewer neurons, but an increase in oligodendrocytes. By blocking the same number of cortisol receptors, it was discovered the process was tied closely to the stress hormone.
Although this sheathing is considered vital to the human brain, the formation of myelin can be good or bad, this depending on the place and time. This excessive sheathing could have potentially evolved to bolster the connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala, which would improve the fight-or-flight response during threat or attack.
Unfortunately, in the modern hectic world that we live in, the chronic stress that we experience can completely hijack this fight-or-flight and then backfire, which forces us to act erratically, crazy, when there’s no actual physical danger.
The Sculpture Of The Brain Throughout Our Lifetime
Routine and regular physical exercise which also includes mindful meditation or yoga are thought to be extremely effective methods of reducing stress, which lowers the cortisol levels.
Although the study didn’t focus on what the benefits were of reducing cortisol, additional research suggests that making active stress reducing lifestyle choices improves for better brain structure along with connectivity.
How Stress Affects The Brain
What’s been studied is if stress in infants can affect the brain’s white matter, and whether chronic stress early in life decreases resilience later on in life. The conclusion was that moderate stress, such as reading or studying for an upcoming exam, can actually build stronger circuitry as well as better resilience.
But prolonged chronic long-term stress can wreak havoc. What’s created is a brain that’s extremely vulnerable to mental disease, this based on the patterning of the white matter that’s formed as infants.
The structure of the brain is also constantly going through plasticity changes, as behavior, chronic stress, and the mindset are never fixed. The power of this plasticity makes it possible to change its function along with the brain structure throughout our lives.
What we can do is make conscious behavioral and mindset choices on a daily basis, this to reduce the stress from our lives, which then improves its structure.