The evil effects of chronic stress on the brain

Last week, I was invited to give a lecture at a symposium on poverty reduction. I spoke of the effects of poverty on the brain. Poverty can be a significant stressor and there is a lot of information available on adverse effects of chronic stress on the brain. The following day, during a workshop on neuro leadership, I was approached to give a lecture on poverty and the effects of chronic stress on the growth and development of children. These two requests in one week made me aware of the importance of sharing knowledge on the functioning of the brain in general and on the effects of chronic stress on the brain in particular.

Stress response

Various situations cause stress responses in our brain. In ninety nine percent of these cases however, this response is not effective. We don’t distinguish between real threats and imaginary threats. Our stress response causes increased cortisol levels, and cortisol can have a toxic effect on the brain.

Possible effects of stress

  • Frequent visits to the doctor. Some research shows that ninety percent of all GP consults is related to chronic stress.
  • Chronic stress can cause forgetfulness. Often, one of the first signs of stress is that you forget meetings.
  • Stress halts the formation of new brain cells. Each day, your brain loses brain cells but it produces new ones too. This requires a particular protein (BDNF). Chronic stress causes an increased cortisol level and increased cortisol halts the production of BDNF.
  • Increased risk of depression. The brain communicates by way of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin. These substances help you feel good and motivated. Chronic stress reduces the levels of these neurotransmitters, thereby increasing the risk of depression.
  • Chronic stress makes your brain shrink. Stress can be the cause of a measurable shrinkage of your brain. The hippocampus, the part crucial for learning and memory, produces fewer neurons. Stress also causes the prefrontal cortex to shrink, which adversely affects your ability to make decisions, to control impulsive behaviour and your working memory.

This list is by no means comprehensive. Let me put it this way: chronic stress can have a significant impact your mental, physical and emotional vitality. And once you know how your brain works, it’s not hard to understand.


But there’s also good news. Research shows that the brain has a natural ability to recover from stress. In general, the plasticity of the brain and especially the hippocampus is quite considerable, which means that the brain can change. That’s why it is so important that you learn to appropriately cope with stress.  You can teach your brain how to deal with stress.

Manage your stress: make sure you take sufficient physical exercise

Physical exercise helps to relieve stress. It has a positive influence on the so-called happy neurotransmitters such as endorphin and dopamine. Working out gives you a perfect handle on stress. I run three times a week, at least, that’s my objective. This running routine also gives me the opportunity to do my meditation practice, as meditation is a highly effective stress reduction tool too.

Manage your stress: meditate daily

Meditation is training your attention. It has many positive effects on stress, two of which I’ll explain here. Meditation allows you to recognize your stress. Many people don’t recognize their stress and if stress continues for a long time, it’ll wear you out. It may even lead to burnout. However, when you recognize stress, you can make a conscious decision not to have it influence or guide you. A second positive effect of meditation to the brain is that the brain becomes less susceptible to stress.

Manage your stress: make sure you sleep enough

Sleep has a positive effect on stress, it improves your wellbeing just as much as fresh food and physical exercise. Sleep regenerates your energy level and reduces stress, whereas sleep deprivation reduces your capacity to control stress.


Stress is not always a bad thing. A certain amount of stress makes you function better. I think the main thing is to recognize your stress so that you are the one to determine to what extent you allow it to guide you.

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