Guess what stress can express

It’s not in your head—this common feeling can physically alter your brain and body

By Natalie Foote

Stress. If you’re an American high school student, this word is part of your daily vocabulary. The American Psychological Association (APA) has reported that teens are reporting significantly higher stress levels than adults, especially during the school year. Given this data and other similarly conclusive studies, stress is a relevant issue in today’s society, particularly due to the long and short term effects of stress on both the brain and body.

Stress is the reaction to a change requiring an adjustment or response to the situation. It can either have a good or bad outcome and is a normal part of everyday life. The problem is when it becomes the dominant part of your life.

The amygdala is the area of the brain that helps people process emotions. When stressed, it sends a message to the hypothalamus, the command center of the brain. The hypothalamus sends a message to the rest of the body through the nervous system and engages the “fight or flight” response. This response triggers the outward physical reaction that many associate with stress or anxiety, like a faster heart rate, heightened senses, a rush of adrenaline, or hyperventilating.

As this is happening, a hormone called cortisol is also released. This hormone restores energy lost from the response to the stressor. When the stressful event ends, the body slowly returns to normal. This response is not an issue for some everyday stress, but constant stress forces the body to make more cortisol than it has a chance to release. This high level of cortisol wears on the brain’s ability to function properly. According to Touro University Worldwide, chronic stress can lead to a disruption in synapse regulation (which results in loss of social skills), reduction of brain cells, and shrinking of the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for memory and learning). 

Besides the immediate physical responses to stress, long term or chronic stress also has physical detriments. These include an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, as well as putting more stress on the digestive, excretory, reproductive, and immune systems. If you experience chronic stress, these effects can sound scary, but the good news is that stress is reversible.

Lifestyle changes prompting a reduction in stressful situations allow neural pathways to reform in the brain. Pathways weakened by constant stress become strong again, aiding the body in recovering from damage done from stress. This is especially good for teens experiencing chronic stress because the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that age is directly related to how easily neural pathways can be reformed and reverse the effects of stress. 

There are many stigmas around mental health. Some say that it is all in people’s heads. Science directly contradicts this. Stress and other mental health issues have a visible impact on the brain and body. It is an illness and should be treated like one. If you broke your arm, you shouldn’t just stay home, ignore it, and hope it gets better by itself. The same goes for mental illness—if you are struggling, get help. You are valued, your mental illness does not define you, and there are many resources available online.


A crowded desk and long to-do list cause stress. Photo by Natalie Foote.

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