• Dr. Benton

6 Ways Chronic Stress Affects the Brain and Learning (and the Solution!)


What stresses you out these days? Family? Politics? The royal wedding? Lukewarm lattes? I know, we all have our hot buttons. Everything from the #MeToo movement to volcanic eruptions in Hawaii is headline news these days. How do you handle your own chronic stressors? If you have ever experienced the classic "brain fart," this post is for you.

We know that chronic stress puts serious wear and tear on our bodies over time, but research also shows us how chronic stress affects the brain. This summary of conclusions outlining these effects was posted on the NICAMB blog a few months ago. No solutions were offered in the article, yet I most of these effects could be mitigated with physical exercise. I added my own responses to these statements below in italics. After all, what good is there in identifying the problem when you don’t have a solution?

Chronic stress causes forgetfulness

1. Chronic stress reduces the number of neurons in the dentate gyrus (the part of the brain associated with the formation of new memories), and also contributes to cognitive problems. So chronic stress shrinks part of the brain just as depression does. How frightening. Let’s nip this one in the bud here. Exercise reverses this effect by triggering the formation of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus.

2. In the hippocampus (which play a role in long-term memory and spatial navigation), chronic stress causes neurons to undergo remodeling of dendrites. Dendrites act as part of the brain’s communication network. Yes, chronic stress causes your brain cells to stop communicating with one another very well. This means that you learn more slowly. Let's stop and think about kids in school who suffer from depression, and how slower thinking might affect their ability to thrive in the classroom. Exercise can re-establish these connections by causing new dendritic growth between neurons, so let's focus on that solution.

3. Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus can be at least partially reversible with the removal of the stress.

Stress-induced remodeling of the hippocampus is all the way reversible with removal of the stressor AND consistent physical exercise.

4. An insufficient amount of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is thought to be at least partially responsible for remodeling the brain under stress. Experiments have found that the brains of mice with an inadequate amount of this protein look similar to those of normal mice that have been under stress for long periods. BDNF enhances the adaptability of neurons in the hippocampus. OK. Exercise specifically triggers the release of increased BDNF in the brain, a factor which is like “Miracle Gro” for your brain cells. In fact, the increased BDNF is largely responsible for regenerating the brain cells and dendritic connections mentioned above. Exercise increases BDNF so significantly that some research is suggesting that exercise could reverse the signs of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS).

5. Chronic stress effects the functioning and mental flexibility of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain involved in working memory and decision making. The prefrontal cortex is also involved in overcoming distorted learning (think trauma and phobias). Yes, exercise reverses this effect, too. I know how boring this is getting for you, but it’s true. The prefrontal cortex orchestrates the communication between other parts of the brain by notifying those parts when new information is present in our environment. While chronic stress breaks down this signaling system, exercise reverses that effect by increasing dendritic connections, regenerating cells in the parts of the brain that tend to shrink during depression, and rebalancing the neurotransmitters associated with learning.

6. Chronic stress is thought to be one of the most common causes of adrenal fatigue.

Our perception of stress is what causes the effects of chronic stress. Exercises is the perfect antidote for sleep problems, muscle tension, anxiety, depression, PMS, problems with learning and attention, and even some developmental/learning disorders. The reason for this is the simple fact that we are meant to move. Chronic stress may wear our brains down, but exercise builds the brain.

Exercise!  It's great for your brain.

We've just reviewed some very real ways that stress can affect the brain by changing how you think, remember, and feel every day. Let's consider how these effects might impact young people in the classrooms. When children with growing brains live under chronic stress AND lead sedentary lives, it becomes nearly impossible to achieve academic potential. Learning how to manage chronic stress and increasing movement can improve brain health, cognitive functioning, mood, and academic performance.

Your health is a fluid state-the choices you make each day can make it or break it. There is a solution for every problem, and sometimes the biggest problems are solved with the simplest solutions. Exercise really does solve (or at least improve) about 99% of our problems!! Our body has a remarkable ability to rebuild itself if you make the right choices. Be well, friends! You can click the image below to email me with any questions.

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