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Stress Shrinks Your Brain


Stress shrinks your brain
Stress shrinks your brain

In this week’s Success Newsletter, I would like to discuss a new study that reveals how constant battering from stressful events actually shrinks the brain and can lead to addiction, depression, loss of impulse control and diabetes.

First a quick update:

“Resolve to please yourself”
Studies indicate more than 80 percent of Americans don’t keep New Year’s resolutions. So why do we bother? Read my quotes and insights in the Tampa Bay News about “the one resolution people should set, and it will make all other goals possible.”

“New Year aids”
Read these various articles for help and insights into creating the New Year that you want.

Now, let’s talk about the new study that reveals how cumulative adversity and stress actually shrink the brain and can lead to addiction, depression, loss of impulse control and diabetes.

It is accurate to say that almost every one of us is faced with tremendous stress and stressors on a daily basis. And some of those stressors such as death, disease, illness, accidents and job loss are unavoidable. But the real danger occurs when we have high stress on a daily basis – chronic stress – and then we are hit with adversity such as death, illness, divorce or a job loss. The chronic stress has already made us vulnerable to the major life events as we are not able to handle them and a part of brain loses volume – yes, shrinks. And, in turn, that part of the brain which is no longer functioning properly can cause depression, a loss of self-control (inability to control our impulses), addiction, anxiety and diabetes. And the more stress that faces you, both chronic and major, the worse the effect is.

The above is the finding of a study led by Dr. Rajita Sinha, a professor of psychiatry and neurobiology at Yale University School of Medicine and director of the Yale Stress Center.

Dr. Sinja conducted a brain imaging study of more than 100 healthy subjects and found that stressful life events, (divorce, job loss, death of a loved one, loss of a home from natural disaster, etc) can reduce gray matter (nerve cells and dendrites) in the prefrontal cortex region which is critical for regulation of emotions, desires & impulses, and physiology.  Dr. Sinja says “The prefrontal cortex is important for metabolic homeostasis and for our survival and adaptation to life’s challenges.” It affects reasoning, planning and problem solving.

The study also revealed that the reduction in brain size is apparent soon after stressful events occur and may serve as warning signals of future psychiatric disorders and chronic diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes.

Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale University and lead author of the study says “The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more challenging for these individuals to deal with future stress, particularly if the next demanding event requires effortful control, emotion regulation, or integrated social processing to overcome it.”

A couple of other key findings from the study include:

  • Chronic stress can erode parts of the brain gradually
  • Recent life stressors such as a traumatic accident, job loss or medical diagnosis affect our emotional awareness, the brain shrinks and we lose touch with our emotions – acting inappropriately or with a lack of compassion. This is one way that stress leads to violent or seemingly inexplicably, highly emotional behavior by someone that was previously perceived as ‘a normal quiet, peaceful person.’
  • Life trauma stressors, such as living with a major illness, cancer or death of a loved one, affect mood centers, distorting our ability to regulate pleasure and reward, and resulting in depression, anxiety or addiction.

The solution
Dr. Sinja says that “The brain is plastic, and there are ways to bring back and perhaps reverse some of the effects of stress and rescue the brain somewhat.”


Here are a few tips along with links to articles further below.

Although, it is not a cure, exercise relieves stress and creates natural highs. Aerobic exercises and deep breathing while walking are most beneficial

Meditation & Yoga
Meditating 10-20 minutes a day along with relaxed slower breathing patterns also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, calming the stress response, resulting in restorative physiological processes and extraordinary benefits to the brain:

  1. Strengthening and rejuvenating the brain: The cells of the brain and their dendrites (the extensions that grow out from the brain cells) deteriorate with age. But scientific studies confirm that meditation results in the growth of new dendrites in the brain.
  2. Preserving memory and cognitive functions: There are about 10,000 dendrites per brain cell. Thus the growth of new dendrites and healthy cells preserves and maintains overall functioning of the brain.
  3. Stimulates the limbic system (the brain’s emotional command center controlling the endocrine and autonomic nervous system) with focus on empathy, compassion and happiness; changes the way the brain operates outside of meditation – with ramped-up activation of the left-sided anterior region of the brain responsible for generating positive emotions.
  4. Improves function in the prefrontal cortex responsible for focus, thoughts and action – problem solving, emotion, complex thought including perception, attention, cognition, processing of sensory information and visual perception.

Emotional support
Who is in your life and in what ways do they influence you? Who are your support groups? Ask for help; allow yourself to be vulnerable and receive support during difficult times. A person who hides in a fortress or castle does so out of fear, but a strong person, stands out front and allows him/herself to be honest, vulnerable and to receive help.

Leisure time & guilt
Create time to enjoy life – not purely as a response or reward for hard work but rather as an enjoyment of the beautiful things in life (i.e. without feeling guilty.) If you deprive yourself of time to relax, play and have fun, you will create further stress and you will rebel by eventually engaging in self-destructive activities as a way to compensate for the lack of joy in your life.

Two powerful tips to reduce stress now
Read my article:

Top tips for tough times
Read my article:

How to remove stress from your life

Sleep Deeply
Use this audio program to sleep deeply:

Feel good about yourself
Use this audio program to relax, raise your self-esteem and let go of the past:

For more help and support on stress you can refer to this list of articles on stress:

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I wish you the best and remind you “Believe in yourself -You deserve the best!”

Patrick Wanis Ph.D.
Celebrity Life Coach, Human Behavior & Relationship Expert & SRTT Therapist

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