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Mental Health

The effects of chronic stress on the CEO of your brain

Contributed by: Dr. Shamini, Partner Psychiatrist

This article is about psychological stress and how unmanaged prolonged stress can have an adverse effect on your brain.

Psychological stress is a common day to day life event, and it ranges from mild to severe levels, depending on the person’s ability to manage the stress. Every individual responds differently to the same psychological stress. One person may be able to experience stress and come out of it being resilient, whereas another person may wither in despair and destitute. The individual variability in coping with the same stress can be the result of genetics, mental & physical health and various other factors, which is beyond the scope of this article.

Stress can be good and can be bad. In levels of stress that is manageable, it can help a person to be resilient, emotionally stronger and develop one’s potential in life. However, when the stress becomes too difficult to bear, the opposite can occur, which includes mental health adversities. And when we dive into the effect of this kind of stress on the brain, it explains a lot of the signs and symptoms of the adverse mental health effects experienced by the sufferer.

Brain imaging and functional studies have revealed that the part of the brain that is adversely affected, called the prefrontal cortex, or the “CEO of the brain”, because it regulates the higher level of brain functioning that is important in our ability to concentrate, plan, self-motivation, endure difficulties, inhibition of impulses, working memory and regulating emotions and stress.

It is no wonder when someone is under tremendous stress, that they experience difficulty concentrating, inability to plan or self-motivate, inability to persevere, impulsive, short term memory difficulties and difficulty in regulating their emotions such as anxiety and depression.

Chronic unmanaged stress dampens the activity and shrinks the prefrontal cortex in the brain and the effect on thinking, emotions and behavior is an explainable biological phenomena, and not due to the “perceived weakness or lack of determination” from the person suffering from the mental health adversities from chronic stress.

Fortunately, there are ways to reverse the dampening and shrinking of the prefrontal cortex in the brain from chronic stress. Being aware of this in oneself or others is the first step and seeking help from health professionals when one if suffering from severe levels of stress, anxiety or depression.

Medications used for the treatment of anxiety and depression have been shown to recover the damaging effects of chronic stress in the prefrontal cortex. However, the time taken to exert this recovery is within weeks to months and not immediate. The reason is because these medications induces recovery at a cellular level before reversing the activity and structure of the prefrontal cortex induced by chronic stress. These medications also help release “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor”, a protein that helps preserve good brain health, by helping restore damaged nerves (the basic unit of the brain) and inducing neuroplasticity for learning and memory skills, especially in the prefrontal cortex.

These last few decades research have revealed the complex neurobiological basis of stress, anxiety and depression and the development of medications to help treat stress induced anxiety, depression and to preserve the brain’s health. Untreated anxiety and depression can result in disability in one’s ability to function and deprive one of a fulfilling life. Therefore, seek professional help for yourself or others via Carepool Asia if you have concerns about your stress.

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Dr. Shamini

Partner Psychiatrist

Carepool Asia

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