Excerpted from David Ropeik
“Want something else to worry about? Worry about worrying too much. The evidence is building that chronically elevated stress shrinks your brain.” (My brain must be the size of a pea)
For example, a study* published in the journal Biological Psychiatry asked participants about how often they had experienced stressful events, both recently and over the course of their lifetimes, as well as about their chronic ongoing stress. When researchers took functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) images of their brain, here’s what they found: the more stress, the smaller the brain in several particular cortical areas.
According to Ropeik, stress not only impairs formation and recall of long-term memory and is strongly associated with clinical depression, but – of special interest to heart patients – it seems to bring on a decreased ability to cope with further stressful experiences: (This REALLY got Tallulah’s attention)
“So not only does the research on stress-associated brain shrinkage suggest that it causes functional mental impairment, one of the problems it appears to cause is the very ability to deal with further stress. This is a really scary positive feedback loop.” (I can’t remember what a feedback loop is. Thank goodness. I don’t want to be more scared)
Stress also triggers the body’s endocrine systems, prompting the release of hormones that can irritate lymphatic tissue that in turn alters our immune functions. They might cause the resting heart to beat faster or raise blood pressure and LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. Dr. Daniel Brotman of Johns Hopkins Hospital was the author of a 2007 review paper on emotional stress and heart health published in The Lancet. He explained:
“Anybody who has narrowly avoided a car accident knows how much emotional stress can rev up your cardiovascular system. But having very frequent or ongoing bouts of ’fight or flight’ is not something the human body is designed to do.” (People with chronic medical conditions are always in a state of “fight or flight”. That’s probably why I have a pea brain)
That’s where chronic stressors can become deadly threats to our hearts. Unmanaged stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility, can affect our health. It may cause:
- High blood pressure
- Irregular heart rhythms
- Damage to our arteries
- Higher cholesterol level
- The development and progression of coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis)
- A weakened immune system
Of course, there’s stress – and then there’s stress.
Clinical stress is caused by, among other things, worrying. There are everyday worries, and chronic worries, big worries and small worries. But worrying of any sort is, essentially, feeling threatened, and that can cause levels of stress-related hormones like glucocorticoids and cortisol to go up. (I’m pleased to tell you that I no longer worry because I can’t remember what it is I should be worried about)”
* Ansell EB, Cumulative Adversity and Smaller Gray Matter Volume in Medial Prefrontal, Anterior Cingulate, and Insula Regions. Biol Psychiatry. 2012 Jan 2.