May 31, 2012 by Paul Nussbaum

Stress and the human brain

Why are there more patients coming to my office with complaints of memory problems? Great question, and the typical answer is stress! In the course of human development, our brain developed the acute stress response that promoted survival when we were being chased and threatened by large animals—and it uses the same stress response to react to stressful events in everyday modern life.

A stressor triggers the amygdala in our brain that sets off the alarm bells for the body to prepare to fight or flee. Norepinephrine floods the brain generating a state of hyper focus, the pituitary sets off the adrenal glands and adrenaline cascades through the body. This causes the lungs to expand for more oxygen, the blood flow to increase to large muscles, digestion and reproduction to halt, and processing speed to increase. We are prepared to fight for our survival.

If this beneficial response to life-threatening stressors does not shut off appropriately, it becomes a chronic response that can damage the structure and function of the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the neighbor of the amygdala and the critical structure for memory and new learning.

The body generates steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids when under stress, and over time these hormones can do structural and functional damage to the hippocampus. This is the reason why chronic stress can cause memory problems. It is common, for example, to see memory deficit in those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

The good news is we do have some control over our perceptions and our body’s ability to regain a balanced and relaxed state.

In my practice, I spend time working with patients to first explain with pictures the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of stress and the brain. This provides a visual to the person. We then identify what the stressors are in the person’s life that are setting off the alarm bells in the brain. Using visualization, relaxation, meditation, and self-talk the person can connect with their amygdala and cool the alarm bells by triggering the “rest and digest” system, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.

Consider the following tips as a means of cooling the amygdala, thereby promoting hippocampal function and enhancing memory:

  1. Practice daily breathing exercises with deep inhalation (this will set off the stress response) and equally deep exhalation (this will set off the relaxation system). This should be done for three to five minutes twice daily.
  2. Engage in quiet self-talk to help guide your brain to remain calm with emotional equilibrium. You have the power through self-talk to minimize the brain’s tendency to react with panic. By making the process conscious, you will be able to identify your own stress triggers and to work on avoiding the stress response.
  3. Learn how to meditate and to gain mindfulness, as this will free you from conscious and subconscious distraction.
  4. Engage in daily exercise with moderate exertion. Blood flow to the brain can help emotional stability and information processing.
  5. Increase your fish intake to 8 ounces weekly, as the Omega-3s are wonderful for cognition and emotional functions of the brain.
  6. Work on being in the moment and enjoying those you love. Life will always be stressful, unless we do not perceive it that way.

Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and American Academy of Clinical Psychology and an adjunct Professor in Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  Learn more about Dr. Nussbaum at:  www.paulnussbaum.comor email him at: .

Related Reading:

Of Rats and Men: How Stress Affects the Brain

Modeling Healthy Choices: Three Habits for Optimal Brain Health