How Stress Alters Your Brain

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If you are in your 40s and suspect your memory is already slipping, stress could be the culprit.

A new study found that forty-somethings who had high levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bodies also had reduced brain volumes and lower cognitive performance.

This study–unlike many prior studies of cortisol’s effect on the brain–specifically targeted middle-aged men and women. Participants did cognitive testing, a brain MRI, and a fasting morning blood sample.

Those with the highest levels of cortisol had the worst performance on visual perception, executive function and attention tasks. They also had a more difficult time retaining information.

The study also found that women tended to have higher cortisol levels than their male counterparts.

I know that stress is pervasive and unavoidable. Things like personal conflict, work responsibilities and financial uncertainty are part of the human experience.

So what can you do about it?

Over the long term, women’s stress levels tend to naturally decrease with age. However, here are a few suggestions how to proactively manage your stress today:

  • Therapy. Feelings of stress can be closely linked to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.  If you have a difficult time unwinding, or you don’t understand why exactly you are feeling stress, you may need extra help or medication to manage your mental health.
  • Get outside. I believe strongly in getting out into nature to improve your mental health. I wrote here about Japanese “shinrin-yoku” or “forest bathing,” which is simply taking in a forest atmosphere, which has been shown to lower cortisol levels. I actually offer walking therapy sessions on the Greenbelt for this reason.
  • Chew gum. I know this may sound silly, but there is a surprising amount of research about chewing gum and stress. This 2015 study drew a strong link between mastication (chewing) and lower levels of salivary cortisol, higher level of alertness, and lower self-reported levels of anxiety and stress.
  • Write it out.  Getting your anxieties and worries out on paper is so helpful: which things can you control? Which things aren’t your responsibility? What can you do about it? Simply writing out your feelings can help with anxiety and depression, as well as help you plan how to manage current stresses.

There are so many ways to help yourself lower your stress levels. Do it for your peace of mind, and for your future brain function.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. If you would like to discuss the information in this blog further with her, please call 208-918-0958 or email her at She sees adolescents and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

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