After her husband passed away, Sandi Bond Chapman says she “could feel it immediately.”
“For a year, I couldn’t think,” says Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. “I couldn’t write a coherent word. I couldn’t do anything.”
At the time of his death, she was working on her doctorate, and she credits a professor for helping her stay on track.
“She kept me moving forward: ‘You have to finish.’ She kept me on my bicycle,” Chapman says. “I had no memory. I couldn’t remember what I’d done that evening.”
“Stress,” she says, “is one of the best brain robbers we have.”
This isn’t merely figurative. According to a recently released Yale University study, stress causes the brain to shrink. So next time you’re stressed to the gills and can neither focus, think nor remember the ingredients for the meatloaf you make every week, you can legitimately blame stress.
“It’s a short, easy story actually,” says Houston neuroscientist and author David Eagleman. “Stress is underpinned by particular hormones that circulate through the body and the brain. Those stress hormones are very bad for brain tissue. They eat away at brain tissue.
“What’s new to be stressed about is that stress is literally chewing miniature holes in your brain.”
Which, he says, “is kind of terrible, right? I agree.”
Not all stress poses a problem; our bodies are designed to combat stress by releasing the hormone cortisol. That response grew out of stresses like, say, being chased by a tiger.
“The general story is that we evolved to have stress systems that are useful when you need a fast response,” says Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “What we did not evolve for is chronic stress, that 21st-century stress that man and woman lives with.”
Instead of a burst of a stress hormone, most people have chronically elevated levels, he says. “The body is simply not built to have high levels of stress for long periods of time. That’s where the stuff eats away at your brain tissue.”
Chapman says the frontal lobe has been identified as “the most critical to everyday functionality. When you have the impact of stress, things that allow you to be successful will be impaired. You can’t figure out how to juggle things, to set priorities.”
That’s one of four areas of the brain affected by stress. Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University calls the hippocampus “ground zero for stress doing damaging stuff.”
“One definitely wants to have a functioning hippocampus,” Sapolsky says. The professor of neurology and neurological sciences recently lectured at the Center for BrainHealth. “It’s all about learning and memory, the part blown out of the water by Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also the part that is most vulnerable to the effects of stress.”
When that happens, “you get neurons dying, shriveling up and losing connections. It’s all really bad news.”
Sherwood E. Brown, professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says the link between stress and the brain has long been a topic of interest.
“We all knew there were consequences of stress,” he says. “Everybody has it, but generally long-term stress seems to be associated with certain psychiatric disorders: depression, anxiety.”
The Yale study asked its 103 subjects about such everyday stressors as personal relationships and job loss. It found that stress affects areas of the brain that have to do with emotion and self-control, as well as such physiological functions as blood pressure.
“We already know this stuff isn’t good for you,” Sapolsky says. “If it takes a picture of your brain, seeing pictures of something smaller than it should be, to realize maybe you should make changes, that’s great.”
He adds, “You don’t need a picture to realize you’re stressed and frazzled.”
The definition and effects of stress differ. One person can shrug off what might totally undo another. Generally, stress is considered to come from a feeling of having no control.
“Most people are pretty insightful about whether they’re stressed out,” says Eagleman, who is often a source on such public-radio shows as Radiolab. “It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. There are varying degrees. For some, their breath is shallow. With others, their muscles ache or their jaw hurts.
“I’m speaking more as a human than as a neuroscientist here, but I feel it’s important to read your body’s signals, to figure out when you’re having high levels of stress and structure ways to manage the stress.”
When people do, says Dallas psychiatrist Joel Holliner, they change.
“When patients come in, we commonly see concentration problems, the inability to make decisions,” says Holliner, chief of psychiatry at Medical City Dallas Hospital. “Over time as they get treatment, we see them significantly improve, to going from having memory deficits – so many think they have dementia or Alzheimer’s – to having their memory totally back to normal. It’s fantastic, absolutely.”
That emphasizes a positive aspect about the research, experts say: The brain can, at least to some degree and despite previous thinking, regenerate.
Reducing stress takes effort, but it can be done.
“It’s a cliché, but nobody ever gets better until they truly want to,” Sapolsky says. “All the standard stress-reducing technicalities work with a bunch of caveats: You can’t save stress management for weekends or holidays. It has to be done daily.”
Additionally, he says: “It has to be something you like doing. If meditation makes you want to scream your head off and run amok, as it would for me, it won’t work for you.”
– Exercise. “We should make time for it,” says Joel Holliner, executive medical director of Green Oaks Psychiatric Hospital and chief of psychiatry at Medical City Dallas Hospital. “It helps us burn off excess adrenaline, one of the fight-or-flight hormones, and to clear our mind.”
– Practice yoga or meditation. It releases other hormones that are the anti flight-or-flight hormones, Holliner says.
– Stop ruminating. “You keep reliving the situation and get in a vicious cycle that breaks the brain down more,” says Sandi Bond Chapman, founder of the Center for BrainHealth. “Halt that pattern and change the way you see things.”
– Change your environment. Chapman was robbed at gunpoint in her home 23 years ago. “I was scared every day of my life,” she says. “I could think coherently, but I was scared. When we moved, I wasn’t scared anymore.”
– Have a support system. “Just talking to someone who doesn’t offer solutions necessarily, but listens, can help diminish the impact of stressful life events,” Holliner says.
– Sleep. “It helps restore mental processes,” he says.