Understanding and countering the effects of stress on your brain and your mental health

Mental Health
Dr Nafissa Ismail talking with a student in her lab
Dr. Nafissa Ismail, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, explains the effects and consequences of stress on the body and brain, and how to protect ourselves.

We all experience stress to some degree. For many of us, it might even be a daily occurrence. But prolonged exposure to stress can significantly impact our bodies and our brains. It’s all the more worrisome during this pandemic, with surveys showing an increase in stress levels in the population, as well as in related psychological disorders. Thankfully, it’s possible to protect yourself against the harmful effects of stress. 

Dr. Nafissa Ismail, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s School of Psychology, recently addressed the issue in an interview with alumna Gwen Madiba, host of the uOttaKnow.

“What we’re experiencing with COVID-19 is difficult and the circumstances can be particularly trying for people already suffering from mental health issues,” Ismail says.

As holder of the University Research Chair in Stress and Mental Health, she studies changes in the brain due to stress. 

Understanding the biology of stress

In response to a stressor, the body secretes a hormone, cortisol, through the adrenal glands. This hormone is released as long as the situation is seen as alarming. “If there is a high level of cortisol in the body for an extended period of time, you increase the risk of developing problems with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress,” says Ismail.

She adds that the presence of cortisol in our body over an extended period increases the permeability of the blood-brain barrier. This barrier normally protects the brain by isolating it from what is happening elsewhere in the body. When it becomes more permeable, it allows inflammatory proteins to pass through to the brain, which creates neuroinflammation. This neuroinflammation reshapes the brain, changing its structure and functions, particularly in three sensitive regions: the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. 

The hippocampus plays a key role in learning and memory. Under prolonged stress, this region shrinks, causing memory disorders and learning difficulties. This reduction in hippocampus size can also lead to symptoms of depression.

Chronic stress also slows down activity in the prefrontal cortex, affecting decision making, problem solving, concentration and planning. 

The amygdala, on the other hand, becomes more active as a result of stress, affecting its ability to regulate emotions. “This is how we see more anxiety in people experiencing chronic stress,” explains Ismail.

Fortunately, research shows that these effects on the brain are reversible and avoidable.

Protecting our brain and mental health against stress

“The best way to protect our brain and make it more resilient to periods of anxiety is to learn to manage our stress in a healthy way, to reduce cortisol production and inflammation,” says Ismail.

While it’s often hard to control our environment, it is possible to change our attitude to reduce its impact on us and restore balance. “An important step is to recognize that a situation is stressful because this is how we perceive it. The simple fact of reminding ourselves that this is a temporary event and that the storm will pass helps build resilience. 

According to Ismail, being organized can also help you feel more in control. Try to take things step by step by managing your time and making a schedule of the things you have to do. This usually allows us some distance to see things more clearly.

Sleep can also be an important ally in facing life’s ups and downs. Ismail suggests practising various relaxation techniques to instill calmness before going to bed. You can thus avoid the sleepless nights that generally come with periods of disruption. 

Finally, listening and support are among the most powerful tools for overcoming hardships. Talking over your concerns with someone you trust helps bring relief. Ismail concludes by reminding us to never hesitate to ask for available mental health help.