Chronic Stress and Your Brain: How to Reverse Negative Effects

What kinds of things stress you out these days?  Bills?  Work?  Family?  We know that chronic stress puts serious wear and tear on our bodies over time, but research is now showing us what chronic stress does to the brain.  This is worth reading because it may explain some of the “brain farts” we all tend to have when feeling stressed out.

Here are are a summary of conclusions that were recently posted to the NICAMB blog.  Maverick has responded to these statements below in italics with a few thoughts and reminders for you on how to reverse these effects.  After all, what good is there in identifying the problem when you don’t have a solution?

• Chronic stress reduces the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus (the part of the brain associated with the formation of new memories), and also contributes to cognitive problems.  So chronic stress shrinks part of the brain just as depression does.  How frightening.  Let’s nip this one in the bud here.  Exercise reverses this effect by triggering the formation of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus.

• In the hippocampus (which play a role in long-term memory and spatial navigation), chronic stress causes neurons to undergo remodeling of dendrites. Dendrites act as part of the brain’s communication network.  Yes, chronic stress causes your brain cells to stop communicating with one another very well.  This means that you learn more slowly-think about kids in school who suffer from depression.  Before we all begin to feel depressed about this, know that exercise re-establishes the connections by causing new dendritic growth between neurons, too.

• Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus can be at least partially reversible with the removal of the stress.

Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus is all the way reversible with consistent physical exercise.

• An insufficient amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is thought to be at least partially responsible for remodeling the brain under stress. Experiments have found that the brains of mice with an inadequate amount of this protein look similar to those of normal mice that have been under stress for long periods. BDNF enhances the adaptability of neurons in the hippocampus.  OK.  Exercise specifically triggers the release of increased BDNF in the brain, a factor which is like “Miracle Gro” for your brain cells.  In fact, the increased BDNF is largely responsible for regenerating the brain cells and dendritic connections mentioned above.  Exercise increases BDNF so significantly that some research is suggesting that exercise could reverse the signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

• Chronic stress effects the functioning and mental flexibility of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in working memory and decision making. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in overcoming distorted learning (think trauma and phobias).  Yes, exercise reverses this effect, too.  I know how boring this is getting for you, but it’s true.  The prefrontal cortex orchestrates the communication between other parts of the brain by notifying those parts when new information is present in our environment.  While chronic stress breaks down this signaling system, exercise reverses that effect by increasing dendritic connections, regenerating cells in the parts of the brain that tend to shrink during depression, and rebalancing the neurotransmitters associated with learning.

• Chronic stress is thought to be one of the most common causes of adrenal fatigue.

Our perception of stress is what causes the effects of chronic stress.  Exercises is the perfect antidote for sleep problems, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, PMS, problems with learning and attention, and even some developmental/learning disorders.  The reason for this is the simple fact that we are meant to move.  Chronic stress may wear our brains down, but exercise builds the brain.

Intelligence is fluid, not static.  Exercise builds your brain, makes learning easier, and helps you process information faster.  “Smart” is not a static characteristic.  “Smart” is earned by building your brain with exercise and filling it with information just as you would build muscles with weights.  Your brain is a muscle.

Your health is also a fluid state.  Your body has a remarkable ability to rebuild itself if you make the right choices.

That’s all for today, folks.  Reports like the above really scare people, and one of the problems I see happening in the field of psychology is the tendency to focus too much on identification of the problem.  The reality is that we have FAR MORE solutions than we do problems.  In fact, the biggest problems are often solved with the most simple solutions.  Remember that the next time you have a huge problem on your plate.


We all have chronic stressors in our lives, but our perception of that stressor is what determines the actual effect.