Chronic stress poses serious risks to many mental health conditions, including depression, but it can also increase the risk of dementia, according to a study published in Current Opinion in Psychiatry.
According to the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Stress in America survey, the average American ranks their stress level as 4.9 on a 10-point scale. Thirty-two percent report being sad, depressed, or overwhelmed. Money was the most common source of stress, with 64% of respondents ranking this issue as “very” or “somewhat” important. Seventy-two percent of respondents report at least some money stress, and 22% report extreme financial stress. Other common sources of stress included work, the economy, family responsibilities, and health.
STRESS AND MENTAL HEALTH IMPLICATIONS
To explore the effects of stress on brain structure and function, researchers looked at a number of recent studies examining fear, anxiety, and stress in animals. The review also included studies involving brain scans exploring the effects of stress on humans.
The team found that long-term, chronic stress impacted the brain’s hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and amygdala. In chronically stressed humans and animals, the amygdala—which is implicated in emotional regulation—became overactive, while the prefrontal cortex—which plays a key role in cognition and emotional regulation—became less active.
Damage to these brain regions can lead to a number of mental health concerns, including depression and dementia. The researchers note these issues only appeared with chronic stress, rather than everyday stress associated with studying for a test or working a long day.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO REVERSE STRESS-RELATED BRAIN DAMAGE?
The study’s authors suggest more research is needed to assess whether interventions such as therapy, stress reduction, or antidepressants can reverse brain damage associated with chronic stress. Some research shows antidepressants and physical therapy can partially reduce stress-related brain damage, with some evidence suggesting therapy may also help. In 2015, another study linked transference-focused psychotherapy with brain changes in people with borderline personality.
Contributed by Zawn Villines, GoodTherapy.org Correspondent
- Mah, L., Szabuniewicz, C., & Fiocco, A. J. (2016). Can anxiety damage the brain? Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 29(1), 56-63. doi:10.1097/yco.0000000000000223
- Stress in America: Paying with our health. (2015, February 4). Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2014/stress-report.pdf