June 15, 2022

Chronic Stress Could Be Shrinking Your Brain

Leadership Development

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Budget cuts? Staffing shortages? Working 12-hour days or longer? Double and triple bookings?

All of those stressors likely sound familiar.

We thought the height of COVID would be the worst of busyness and demands on healthcare leaders, but since the crescendo of the pandemic, stressors haven’t tapered down. Instead, they continue to climb.

In the midst of increasing demands, leaders tell us that calls to focus on “self care” and “balance” are laughable at best, insultingly out-of-touch at worst. Who has the time to unwind with a bubble bath? 

The reality is that chronic stress could be impairing your brain health, say researchers  — including the cognitive functions that enable you to lead effectively. It’s why practicing a sustainable, balanced routine is critical to your performance and long-term success.

Stress Shrinking Your Brain Matter

First, let’s look at what chronic stress does to your brain.

In the short term, chronic stress typically results in you feeling disorganized and forgetful. Long term, there is evidence that chronic stress may rewire your brain and deteriorate memory function.

When you experience a stressful situation, your amygdala (emotional processing part of your brain) sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus (part of your brain that communicates with the rest of the body through the nervous system), and epinephrine (adrenaline) begins pumping into your bloodstream. 

The physical result you are likely familiar with is breathing faster, heart rate speeding up, and senses sharpening. Though you may not be in grave danger, your body is hardwired to interpret stress with a fight-or-flight response so you shift into survival mode. 

After this initial response, your body releases cortisol to restore balance in your body. As the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science explains it, when under chronic stress, your body makes more cortisol than it can release, resulting in a disruption of synapse regulation. This leads to a loss of sociability, killed brain cells, reduced gray matter in your brain, and a shrunken prefrontal cortex (part of your brain responsible for memory and learning).

Dr. Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says when operating in “survival mode,” your brain shifts resources away from “memory and learning mode,” which reduces your brain’s health over time. 

Imagine what would happen to your physical health if you only did bicep exercises. Your bicep muscles would become stronger, but the rest of your body would become weaker. Similarly, when one part of your brain is continuously engaged due to chronic stress, you strengthen that part, but the other parts of your brain that handle more complex thoughts, tasks, and memory are neglected and get weaker.

More preliminary research from Jill Goldstein, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Harvard Medical School, suggests that chronic stress impairs your brain health. Epinephrine surges damage blood vessels and arteries, increase your blood pressure, raise your risk of heart attacks, promote the formation of artery-clogging deposits, and contribute to anxiety, depression, and addiction.

Five Ways To Protect Your Brain from Stress Damage

The NeuroLeadership Journal published research on key ways to optimize your time to positively impact your brain health.

The following five neurocognitive activities have been found to nurture the mind:

  • Sleep time: Very brief naps, as short as 10 minutes, confer immediate alertness and boosted cognitive performance. Sleep is known to be linked to cognitive performance and impacts your homeostatic restoration, thermoregulation, tissue repair, memory processing, and emotion regulation. 
  • Physical time: Aerobic exercise like walking, swimming, or cycling ameliorates your brain’s plasticity and mental functioning, and is also correlated with increasing your brain size.
  • Down time: Allowing your mind to wander or simply relax without focus helps your brain recharge and consequently moderate your relationship between previous knowledge and experience to generate new insights.
  • Play time: Novel experiences that allow you to be spontaneous, creative, or experimental with life, like playing a card game or learning to surf, enhances your brain’s capacity to innovate, adapt, and show a way out of problems.
  • Connecting time: Social support via connecting with other people is reliably linked to improved cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune health, and activates your brain’s relational circuitry.

Though the demands and stresses on you as a healthcare leader are likely to continue to climb, optimizing your time with neuro-cognitive activities that protect your brain health will help you sustain success for the long-term. 

Which of the above time uses do you think will be best to implement first?

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About the author

Kristy Kainrath, MBA, PCC

Kristy Kainrath, MBA, PCC is a strategic thinker known for her passion in helping others be their best selves through awareness and purpose.

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