Pandemic burnout is real. We are fast approaching the two-year mark when Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, and the end is still not in sight. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic in some form.
The anxiety, stress, and uncertainty the pandemic caused make it more important than ever to take care of your mental health. Pandemic burnout affects young and old, leaving us feeling mentally exhausted, hopeless, helpless, isolated, lonely, and on edge.
Signs of pandemic burnout
Long hours and unrelenting work pressure can lead to debilitating physical exhaustion and mental fatigue. The pressure to always perform at your best makes you feel anxious, depressed, angry, hostile, cynical and irritable. You feel overwhelmed, besieged and uncharacteristically emotional and out of control.
These are typical warning signs of executive burnout. Take those red flags, add a few more listed below, and you likely have pandemic burnout.
your sense of purpose is diminished
you lack the motivation to keep going
you procrastinate, put off doing tasks, don’t meet work deadlines
you feel isolated and depressed
you feel detached, disconnected from colleagues, friends and family
you feel helpless, vulnerable or defenseless
you feel guilty for having a job and a reliable income
you feel overwhelmed, crushed, defeated
you feel controlled, resent the loss of your freedom
you constantly feel fearful and anxious
a sense of doom and gloom hangs over you
you experience panic attacks
you’ve lost interest in people, places and activities that used to bring you joy
you binge drink or take drugs to cope with anxiety and depression
you start to resist Covid-19 safety protocol; refuse to wear a mask, social distance, sanitise etc.
What is the difference between pandemic and executive burnout?
Pandemic burnout is a new type of burnout, one where fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness add a stifling layer on top of chronic physical and mental fatigue brought on by “burning both ends of the candle” on the work and home front.
Dr Meyers describes burnout as “emotional exhaustion and decreased personal achievement in response to interpersonal and emotional stress. It’s an occupational illness, a state of fatigue and frustration brought about by over-commitment to work, a cause or a way of life that does not produce the expected reward. It’s not just physical exhaustion; it’s an erosion of the soul in people.”
Dr Meyers is a Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and the author of 7 books that deal with mental health issues. Dr Meyers serves on the Advisory Board to the Committee for Physician Health of the Medical Society of the State of New York.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes executive burnout as physical and mental symptoms “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO classifies burnout symptoms on three dimensions:
emotional exhaustion (lack of energy, feeling emotionally drained)
Naturally, we felt alarmed and anxious at the start of the pandemic, but we were motivated to do our bit to flatten the curve and stop the spread of the virus. As the months wore on and we experienced the emotional yo-yo effect of lockdowns being imposed, lifted and then imposed again, it became challenging to stay positive and engaged in daily life.
Noun: fearmongering; the action of deliberately arousing public fear or alarm about a particular issue.
Emotional and mental fatigue set in, worsened by media fearmongering and the politicisation of the virus. Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask. It’s not safe to go out, it’s safe to go out. Keep kids at home, send kids back to school. Get the vaccine, don’t get the vaccine.
Decisions are questioned and judged; friends, family and colleagues turn on each other out of fear and frustration. You don’t know who to trust or what to believe; you feel out of control, disorientated and confused.
The novelty of working from home wore thin; we struggled to set boundaries for a healthy work-life balance, and became increasingly isolated and lonely. Businesses and schools shut down; we were confined to our homes. We split our time between meeting work deadlines and giving our children the attention they needed to stay on top of school work.
The pandemic created unprecedented social isolation. We experienced external isolation when we were cut off from friends, family and the outside world. We experienced internal isolation; struggling with feelings that were mostly foreign to us like distrust, disbelief and skepticism. We lived with a crippling fear of contracting the virus or a loved one getting sick and passing away.
Breakdown of work-home boundaries
Businesses suffered and shut down. Retrenchment was an ever-present threat. We were told the economic fallout from the pandemic would be long-lasting. The fear of losing our jobs kept us at our desks, working long hours to prove our worth to demanding bosses.
Mental health in jeopardy
Work stress, anxiety, frustration and mental fatigue increased as the pandemic dragged out but we soldiered on, motivated by fear of losing our jobs and livelihoods. Fear is a great motivator and spurs people into action, but it is not sustainable.
Without a solid foundation of emotional wellness, fear-based engagement is short-lived. It leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, and diminished self-esteem and confidence.
The Covid-19 pandemic came as a shock to people worldwide, and it disrupted our lives in extraordinary ways. There was wholesale panic over keeping our jobs or businesses afloat, paying bills, putting food on the table and staying alive.
We are still dealing with anxiety as new variants reach our shores, vaccination debates rage, mainstream media continues to flog fear and panic, and no one has any clue when life will return to normal.
It’s natural to feel overwhelmed, frightened and anxious. The pandemic appears to be here to stay, for a while longer at least. It’s a good idea to take stock of your emotional well-being and put things in place to safeguard it. If your mental state is fragile and your grip on things at work and home is slipping, you need to get help.
Remember these three things:
It’s okay to admit you’re not fine
If you feel physically exhausted and emotionally drained, you are not alone. The pandemic has taken a toll on everyone. It turned our lives upside down, and it keeps throwing curveballs at us. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling to cope. We are rowing our boats in unchartered waters.
It’s okay to mourn for what you have lost
The pandemic destroyed careers and businesses, stole precious time with family and friends, robbed us of milestones, took loved ones too early, and put our physical and mental well-being at risk. It’s okay to grieve, not only for what you have physically lost but for the loss of your hopes, dreams and way of life.
It’s okay to ask for help
Safeguarding yourself from having a complete mental breakdown is just as important as wearing masks, sanitising and social distancing. Put aside feelings of guilt that you at least have a job and you’re alive when others have died. Asking for help when others are worse off than you is okay. Your mental well-being is more important than your pride.
If your emotional well-being is wobbly because you are overworked, feel isolated and depressed, struggle to keep motivated, you’re in financial trouble or feel highly anxious about the future, you need to speak to someone and get help to rebalance your emotional state. If you can’t talk to someone at work, you should talk to your doctor or a psychologist.
5 tips to ward off pandemic burnout
Re-set your mental timeframe for pandemic recovery
Three weeks to flatten the curve turned into a year, and soon it will be two years since our lives were turned inside out and upside down. Rather than fight frustration, confusion and anxiety that threatens to engulf you because daily life is so unpredictable, accept the fact that life will not return to normal for a long time. Re-set your expectations. Stay flexible and resist the urge to rail against the status quo.
Set firm boundaries for a health work-life balance
Working from home during the pandemic often leads to longer working hours; we start earlier and end later, and we’re available on weekends. We also may work longer hours or ignore work-home boundaries because we feel “so grateful to have a job”.
Companies install computer software programmes like Bossware, which is meant to monitor work productivity but instead fuels a culture of overworking. Putting in long hours doesn’t make you productive, just exhausted and disillusioned.
Speak to your boss about their expectations of your work performance and set work targets. As long as you meet those within a typical working day, you should not feel under pressure to overwork to prove your worth.
Take time off
We were in lockdown, borders were closed, and travel was restricted. With nowhere to go, we stayed home and worked hard. Lunch breaks and social chats at the coffee machine vanished, employee leave was cancelled, and we felt extra pressure to prove our worth and keep our jobs.
All work and no play is a recipe for pandemic burnout. Let your boss know when you are away from your desk for tea or lunch breaks, and put in for leave as you would do each year, even if you have a ‘staycation’ at home.
Detox from social media
The Covid-19 pandemic provided news journalists and social media with extraordinary amounts of clickbait. This is Internet content published with the sole purpose of attracting readers to sites and encouraging users to click on links on web pages. An insatiable appetite for clickbait has driven the spread of misinformation and scaremongering content.
Either reduce the amount of time you spend on social media platforms or have a complete break from them. Research shows that excessive time spent on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram can cause serious mental health problems.
Get back to doing the things you loved
Walks in the park, meeting friends for coffee, hitting the gym, birdwatching, surfing, art and crafts, road trips; try to pick up where you left off before Covid-19 was declared a pandemic. Take time away from your workstation to get fresh air, regular exercise and increase dopamine levels the natural way.
You might not be able to do everything you loved doing before Covid-19 disrupted your life, but you can find ways to refresh and reinvigorate your battle-weary mind, body and soul.
What should you do if you have pandemic burnout?
It may be necessary to take time off work and book yourself into an inpatient wellness treatment centre like White River Manor. Be kind to yourself and allow yourself time to heal if you are physically and mentally burnt out.
If you are self-medicating pandemic-induced burnout with alcohol or drugs, it’s more important than ever that you seek help before you develop a chronic addiction.
If you or someone you know is threatening suicide, please urgently call your national Suicide Crisis Line.
We’re here to help.
Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our qualified mental health and addiction care professionals at Tikvah Lake in Florida.
Many of us kept a diary when we were younger, hidden away from prying eyes and filled with our everyday thoughts, struggles, and emotions. But then we grew up, and the responsibilities of life got in the way of writing in our journals.
This is exactly what makes journaling even more important today as we navigate life’s stresses and challenges. When you journal, you can gain more clarity of thought about what you’re struggling with within that moment, which improves your overall mental health.
But What Is Stress?
People carelessly use the word “stress” in conversations. However, when people genuinely say they’re stressed, they’re usually referring to a much more serious mental and emotional condition. Simply put, stress is your physical and psychological reaction to something that upsets your balance. The more extreme the upset or stressor, the greater your reaction.
Now, some stressors can occur suddenly, such as the loss of a loved one through death or divorce, loss of a job or business, or an unexpected medical diagnosis. Most times, however, stress builds over time, like when we choose to stay in unhealthy relationships, cope with an unpleasant boss, regret missed opportunities, or accept circumstances that are detrimental to our well-being.
Stress is a perfectly normal response because it signals that we’re off balance. However, you should not ignore these symptoms of stress:
Journaling is an evidence-based strategy for stress management, as numerous studies have demonstrated. Studies about expressive writing have found that journaling reduces blood pressure and improves immunity, leading to fewer doctors’ visits and shorter hospital stays and improved mood and memory. Journaling is such a powerful stress management tool because it helps us to:
Identify and Prioritize Your Stressors
Recognizing the key causes of stress in your life is a solid step towards stress management. If your stressors are not readily apparent, write a daily journal for a week or two and then read your entries. It may be easy to identify the recurring themes that point to your stress.
Recognize Stress Triggers
If certain people, things, or situations trigger your stress and anxiety, you can learn to spot them early and avoid them as much as possible. If the stressors are unavoidable, you can incorporate exercises like breathing or personal mantras to manage your reactions.
Catch Negative Thoughts and Behaviors Early
Negative self-talk and intrusive thoughts are considerable challenges in stress management. Journaling teaches you to recognize and organize your thoughts and shift from a negative to a positive perspective.
Brainstorm Solutions to Reduce or Eleminate Your Stressors
With your stressors identified, journaling can help you think about creative solutions to improve the quality of your life. This may mean reducing contact with stressful people and increasing the time you spend doing the things you love with people who care about you.
Gain Valuable Self-Knowledge
Self-awareness is an invaluable gift. Knowing who you really are, means that very little can upset your balance. You will know what to care about and what to let go of, which is a great stress management skill.
Process Traumatic Events in a Controlled Way
It’s perfectly normal for our minds to shy away from addressing traumatic events that cause us tremendous stress. However, these events will surface at certain points in time, either through panic attacks, angry outbursts, withdrawal, or other unhealthy ways. Journaling gives you control over the traumatic event as you calmly process the emotions and behaviors linked to the event.
Direct Your Attention to More Positive, Wholesome Life Events and Emotions
Good things are worth recognizing and celebrating, and unfortunately, they may be so small that we ignore them. Include in your journal that great cup of coffee you had, that heartwarming smile from a loved one, a clear, sunny day, or even just a good drive home from work. It’s the simple things that can steer our focus from negativity and stress.
How to Journal
Journaling doesn’t necessarily involve pen and paper, especially with the advent of journaling apps for smartphones. Try both a traditional notepad and a journaling app to see what works best for you. Keep the following tips in mind to get the most benefits from journaling:
Write Every Day
You may set a reminder every day to write a journal entry or write whenever you feel overwhelmed, regardless of the time of day. The aim is to build a journaling habit to figure out the best time that works for you.
Keep Your Journal at Hand
If you prefer to keep a notebook or diary, keep it within reach. If you choose a smartphone journaling app, pin the icon to your home screen.
Don’t Limit Yourself to Words
We understand that not all people can express themselves adequately with the written word. Remember, your journal does not judge you, so you can sketch, draw or doodle, attach photos, write on the margins, and ignore spelling mistakes, as long as you can freely capture your emotions.
Decide Whether to Share Your Journal
The contents of a journal should be private, but they can help close friends and loved ones to understand your situation. You could try sharing an entry with a trustworthy companion to foster empathy and improve your communication.
Types of Journals for Stress Management
A blank page can be daunting even to the best of writers, but thankfully there are some easy-to-start journals that you can explore:
A Gratitude Journal
This is a simple, effective type of journal that focuses on the positive aspects of everyday life. Take a few minutes of your day to write down at least three things in your life that you are grateful for. A gratitude journal also creates a record of positivity that you can always return to whenever your struggles resurface.
An Emotional Release Journal
This works best with smartphone journaling because when you’re in the moment of anger, depression, or anxiety, you can grab your phone and type away. At the same time, you can journal about positive experiences that might overwhelm you as well. An emotional release journal is mainly for catharsis, which helps to manage pent-up emotions.
A Planning Journal
Sometimes planning out your day with a to-do list can help you calm down and focus on what’s important. A planning journal uses checklists to organize our time and unclutter our minds. You can list items according to priority, with allowance for schedule changes to minimize anxiety.
Challenges of Journaling
Although journaling has proven benefits for managing stress, it may not work for everyone. For example, individuals living with learning disabilities or physical disabilities may find writing difficult. Other than physical challenges, most of us may short of time, find journaling a trivial task, or simply be unwilling to face our stress in constructive ways.
Let’s not forget those of us who are perfectionists who may become overly concerned with their handwriting, grammar, language, even the quality of pen and paper or journaling app, which distracts from reducing stress.
There are workarounds to these challenges, such as using voice notes or recordings of your journal entries instead of writing by hand or typing. Text-to-speech can also convert your voice into written journal entries.
Structure each journal entry to always conclude with gratitude, solutions to problems, or your hopes and aspirations. Ending your journal entry on a positive note can decrease anxiety and encourage you to keep on writing.
You can also combine journaling with a relaxing activity to encourage you to adopt the habit easier. For example, brew a good cup of your favorite tea and enjoy it while you journal, or cuddle with your pet, or play some music in the background to get your thoughts flowing. This makes your journal time special and worth looking forward to after a long, stressful day.
Journaling on its own may not be enough to manage stress, especially if you also struggle with major depression and addiction. For the greatest benefits to your mental health, combine journaling with:
Eating a healthy, balanced diet
Daily meditation and relaxation
Avoiding alcohol and drugs
Adequate sleeping time
Take Some Private Time Away from Stress Today
Journaling is a healthy practice for stress management, but sometimes life can become more overwhelming than daily journals can resolve. That is why Tikvah Lake Recovery in Florida offers a personalized retreat for mental health recovery. We prioritize your privacy and offer the most experienced clinical and medical staff, as well as spiritual and culinary professionals, to help with addiction and mental health treatment. Get in touch with Tikvah Lake for bespoke mental health rehabilitation for yourself or a loved one today.
In 2020, the American Psychological Association sounded a loud alarm bell. Stress levels among Americans had reached such a high level that they considered it a national emergency.
Stress was an endemic problem in our society well before the pandemic disrupted our lives. The World Health Organization declared it the “health epidemic of the 21st century” in 2017. But the increased uncertainty, health concerns, and significant changes Covid 19 brought with it have only exacerbated the issue.
Although many factors contribute to this mental health emergency, stress at work remains a common contributor. 64% of employed Americans report that their work is a source of stress.
For those in high-level roles, the issue is only amplified. Executives take on increased responsibility and, with it, longer working hours and the pressure of managing the future of their companies and teams, as well as their own workloads.
This demanding work schedule leaves executives at a high risk of stress. And stress is associated in turn with burnout, a recognized condition, with symptoms that include extreme fatigue, difficulty concentrating and thinking, and increased negativity.
This work-related stress isn’t only a concern for the mental wellbeing of executives. It also has an impact on their physical health.
Short-term stress can lead to headaches, difficulty sleeping, and digestive issues. Continuing to feel stressed in the long term has even more serious consequences. Research has linked stress with a range of chronic diseases, including:
high blood pressure,
a lowered immune system,
stomach ulcers, diabetes,
If you are experiencing work-related stress, you are not alone. The impact of a demanding job and long working hours leaves many corporate executives under extreme pressure to perform.
There are strategies you can develop that will help you manage stress at work. Some of these are habits you can incorporate into your working day, while others may require changes to your life outside the office.
1. Understand Your Main Stressors
Before you start trying to troubleshoot your work-related stress, take some time to identify where the main pressure is coming from.
Perhaps your workload is simply too much, leaving you feeling overwhelmed. Maybe your work schedule has taken over your life to an unmanageable extent, giving you no time for rest, relaxation, or to pursue other areas of interest.
You might feel that your efforts are going unrecognized by your colleagues. Or your daily tasks might feel unrewarding because you are constantly having to deal with problems and setbacks.
Of course, you are likely experiencing a combination of these issues. But identifying which are most pressing can help you prioritize solutions that will relieve some of the strain.
As well as understanding the main causes of your stress, learn to recognize what increased stress levels look like for you. Often it comes with physical symptoms, such as a raised heart rate, tense muscles, feeling hot, or being suddenly uncomfortable.
You may also notice changes in your behavior. Your temper might be shorter, and you might speak more loudly. Or you may be someone who becomes quieter and more distant when your mind is preoccupied with stress.
Being able to recognize when your stress levels are rising helps you to put coping strategies in place.
Don’t forget that this is not a moment to judge yourself or to fight the stress. Acknowledging what you are feeling is a necessary part of learning when you need to make changes.
2. Take a Break
In the face of workplace stress, one immediate solution is to temporarily remove yourself from the situation. This is easier if you are on your own at your desk. But even in meetings, you can request a short break to let everyone regroup.
Stepping away from your workload when there is so much to do can be a difficult task. It is tempting to press on to get as much done as possible.
But stress often clouds our thoughts and stops us from performing at our best. Taking a short break gives you the breathing space to clear your mind and feel calmer, instead of becoming overwhelmed.
Try to schedule regular breaks throughout your working day, including a decent interval of time between meetings. You can supplement these regular breaks with an emergency breather when you notice your stress levels are rising.
According to Forbes, more than 90% of leaders find they manage stress better when they take a short break from what they are doing.
If you can, go outside to give yourself a change of environment. A walk can also help. But even some quiet time spent taking deep breaths can make a huge difference to your frame of mind.
3. Brush Up on Time Management Skills
A demanding workload is a common feature of executive roles. If you’ve identified this as one of your main sources of stress, putting some new time management techniques in place might help you feel more organized and on top of your tasks.
If someone else manages your diary, you will need to involve them with this step. Block out time where you aren’t available for meetings or calls, so you know you will be able to focus when you need to.
You likely have a lengthy to-do list already. But a step many people miss is allocating time to tasks. Make it a priority at the start of your day to work through your to-do list and plan when you will tackle each item throughout the day.
You can use an online calendar to visualize what your day will look like. This gives you an easy tool to map out what you can reasonably accomplish in the time available, including regular breaks.
Not only does this keep you organized, but it also saves you from having to decide which item to work on next.
Muting your email notifications is another useful technique to maintain focus and prevent you from feeling overwhelmed.
If your workload is consistently more than you can accomplish in the time available, you may need to look at delegating some of your tasks. There may be members of your team who would relish the opportunity to increase their skills and responsibility.
You may also need to have an honest discussion with other members of the management team about the resources available. If they are also feeling overwhelmed, there is a wider strategic issue that needs addressing.
4. Reclaim Your Life-Work Balance
The rise in home-based and online working has meant the separation between work and home life has quickly become blurred. If you were working overtime before the pandemic, you might find that your hours have only increased.
If work is causing you anxiety and you do little else, it makes sense that your stress levels will become harder to manage.
Studies show that having a poor life-work balance is linked to occupational stress, fatigue, and depression. Reclaiming your leisure time is an essential step in managing your stress at work.
Pushing back on long working hours can be tricky, especially if your workplace culture expects people to go above and beyond. But you are likely to be more productive in the time that you are at work if you are rested and fulfilled by your non-working hours.
If you are working at home, give yourself a cut-off point where you will shut down the computer and mute your work emails. If you are in the office, make it a habit to stop working when you leave. And then make sure you leave at a decent time.
It isn’t only about working shorter hours. What you do with your leisure time can also have a significant impact on your stress.
There is evidence that people who spend time enjoying their hobbies are less likely to experience stress and depression. This includes music, art, crafting, sport, or spending time in nature. Socializing with friends and family can also help to reduce stress, provided it doesn’t become just another item on your to-do list.
5. Prioritize Your General Health
When work-related stress is occupying your mind, it is easy to let your physical health slip too. Making the time to eat well, get enough sleep, and move your body regularly might feel impossible when you have so much to do.
These are basic things, but they make a significant difference to your ability to manage stress, both at work and at home. So, they need to be a priority, even if that feels unreachable at first.
Exercise brings many benefits to your physical and mental health. Stress reduction is one of them. According to Harvard Health, even a 20-minute walk can help to decrease your stress levels and clear your head.
Getting enough sleep can be hard when circling work pressure stops your mind from switching off at night. But research from the American Psychological Association suggests that a good night’s sleep can reduce stress, especially in those whose stress levels are high.
It can take some time to build healthy habits and then see their effect. However, you’ll find you are better able to cope when your basic needs are met.
Breaking Free of Work Stress
No one’s work is completely stress-free. But feeling continuously overwhelmed by your workload is worrying news for your health, as well as your productivity.
The suggestions in this article can help you to find a better balance. However, sometimes your stress has remained so high for so long that you need a proper break to rejuvenate.
If you are struggling with work stress and would like to talk through your options, contact us today to learn more about our services and how we can help.
Applying to a new job, starting a business or relocating to a new country are all examples of stressful situations.
Stress has become ingrained in our daily lives and it has come to a point where it would be unreasonable for us to expect not to have to deal with it.
Let us take a minute to understand what stress actually is.
Stress is more than a feeling. It is a biological response that our body produces because of stress factors or stressors. Anyone preparing for a test, or an important meeting with higher management, having an argument with someone or trying to win a sports match knows what stress is.
When we are stressed, our body releases the stress hormone (cortisol) which gives us the energy to deal with the situation. When the event is over the level of cortisol in our body falls back to normal.
Take an example of a sports match. We naturally play to win and while the match is on, we automatically get stressed. Our cortisol levels go up, keeping us alert and active.
In this case, stress is beneficial. It was a reaction to a temporary event that gave us the energy to control and modify our response based on the situation we found ourselves in.
But when the feeling of being stressed recurs and becomes constant, it is harmful and can have a negative impact on our health.
Chronic stress leads to mood swings, a feeling of irritability and causes us to lose focus. If not treated and managed early on, it can lead to more severe physical complications like gastrointestinal issues, hypertension and heart disease.
The Biology behind Stress
When we encounter a stressful situation, the hypothalamus, located at the base of the brain begins the stress response by sending a message to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland in turn sends a message to the adrenal glands located on the top of the kidneys. The adrenal glands release the stress hormone, cortisol.
With the help of cortisol, the liver produces glucose and releases it into the bloodstream. The increase in blood sugar level gives us the energy for the fight or flight response. Once the situation in under control, blood sugar levels return to normal.
The series of interactions between the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands is called the Hypothalamus Pituitary Adrenal axis or the HPA axis.
Although normal levels of cortisol are healthy, increasing levels can wreak havoc with our brain.
Here are a few ways in which stress can affect our brain.
Chronic stress weakens the hippocampus
Rising cortisol levels lead to an increase in the activity level and number of neurons in the amygdala; the part of the brain that controls our emotions. The amygdala is a collection of cells at the base of the brain. At the same time, the electrical signals in the hippocampus decrease. The hippocampus is embedded deep in the temporal lobe and controls our memory, learning and stress controlling ability. It is involved in the regulation of our stress response and exerts negative feedback on the HPA axis, thereby controlling the release of cortisol. But as the electrical signals in the hippocampus decrease, it weakens and reduces our ability to control stress.
High levels of cortisol can cause our brain to shrink in size
High levels of cortisol cause a breakdown of the synaptic connections between neurons and also shrinks the size of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for cognitive behavior, personality, decision-making and social interaction.
In a study conducted on 103 healthy participants at Yale University, researchers found that those who had experienced traumatic stress and adverse life events, even very recent ones, showed lower gray matter in the prefrontal cortex.
Cortisol makes the brain more receptive to stress
While stress shrinks the size of the prefrontal cortex, it can increase the size of the amygdala which can make the brain more receptive to stress.
Stress kills brain cells and decreases memory and learning ability
High cortisol levels kill newly created neurons in the hippocampus which ultimately decreases our memory and learning ability and can lead to more severe mental illnesses like Alzheimer’s disease.
In a lab experiment conducted on rats, researchers found that a single stressful event could kill new neurons created in the hippocampus.
The researchers placed young rats in a cage with two older rats for around twenty minutes. The young rats were then subjected to aggressive behavior by the older rats. Examination of the young rats found that they had cortisol levels up to six times higher than those of rats who had not experienced a stressful situation. Further examination showed that while the rats subjected to stress had generated the same number of new neurons as those generated by the rats not under stress, there was a distinct reduction in neurons a week later.
High stress causes loss of memory and spatial orientation
The hippocampus has always been associated with storing long term memory and is thought to be responsible for our spatial processing and navigational ability.
The hippocampus is composed of several sub-regions, one of which is the dentate gyrus. The dentate gyrus is composed of densely packed neurons and houses neural stem cells that mature into neurons throughout our adult lives.
Stress causes the hippocampus to lose its ability to produce new neurons in the dentate gyrus thereby weakening our memory and spatial orientation.
Spatial orientation is our innate sense of direction that helps us navigate our environment and get from one point to another. It helps us read maps, find our way to new places by following directions and generally helps us orient ourselves in unfamiliar environments. Without spatial orientation we would be lost and would not know how to get to where we want to go.
Chronic stress diminishes the ability of the hippocampus to generate new neurons, which negatively affects our spatial orientation.
Chronic Stress causes mental illness
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have shown that chronic stress causes long term changes in the brain which is why people with chronic stress are prone to mental illnesses like anxiety and mood disorders later in life.
People with stress-related illnesses like PTSD have more white matter than gray matter in their brain. Gray matter mostly consists of neurons and support cells called glia while white matter is composed of axons. Axons create a network of fibers that interconnect neurons. Myelin, a white fatty sheet surrounds the axons and speeds the flow of electrical signals from cell to cell.
A series of studies published in the journal ‘Molecular Psychiatry’ found that chronic stress generates more myelin producing cells and fewer neurons. This results in an excess of myelin or white matter in several areas of the brain which upsets timing and communication within the brain.
Chronic Stress causes Alzheimer’s disease
There are two key toxic proteins responsible for causing Alzheimer’s disease.
The first is beta-amyloid which forms plaques in the brain. Animal models subjected to stress have shown an increase in levels of beta-amyloid.
Tau is the second toxic protein responsible for Alzheimer’s. It forms tangles and is the primary trigger for the death of neurons in people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies have shown evidence of hyper-phosphorylation of tau in animal models subjected to stress.
Stress affects brain connectivity
Researchers have also found differences in brain connectivity in people suffering from PTSD. There was stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and amygdala while the connectivity between the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex was weakened. This meant that fear responses in people with PTSD would be quicker while their ability to control fear or to inhibit their response to fear would be lessened.
People suffering from PTSD always have their fear response mechanism activated and are always in fight or flight mode which makes it logical that the connectivity between their amygdala and hippocampus becomes stronger over time.
How to reclaim brain health
Although the effect that stress can have on the brain, looks scary, we needn’t be afraid. Many of the changes that occur in our brain pathways as a result of high cortisol levels, can be reversed.
Positive changes in lifestyle have a direct impact in reducing stress levels and improving brain health
Exercise regularly for 30 mins a day, four to five days a week