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Photo illustration of a white plastic brain in profile against a lime green foam background.
Photo illustration of a white plastic brain in profile against a lime green foam background.

Stress and the Brain: Health Implications

Mental Health and Disease Risk

Stress is normal. It is our body’s reaction to the physical and emotional experiences in our life.

Some stress can be good for you when it is motivating or lifesaving. However, too much stress over time — sometimes known as chronic stress — can lead to health issues.

Understanding Stress

Some potential health effects of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Increased risk of contracting an illness
  • Difficulty sleeping or eating
  • Headaches, migraines or seizures

A particularly notable implication of chronic stress is its impact on mental health and well-being.

“When we’re feeling stressed, we can feel overwhelmed and like we don’t have control,” says Katherine S. Carroll, MD, a neurologist at Northwestern Medicine. “This can often lead to increased anxiety, mental health issues and depression.”

Stress can also compound the effects that you feel from an existing mental health disorder or issue. For example, if you are someone with bipolar disorder, stress might trigger manic or depressive episodes.

There can even be greater biological implications from chronic stress, such as the health of your brain and neurological system.

“Research has shown that higher stress can impact your risk for neurological diseases,” explains Dr. Caroll. For example, chronic stress has been identified as a potential risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative health issues.

Handling Stress

Chronic stress can result in long-term impacts on your body as the stress continually triggers intense physical and emotional reactions. No matter how stress affects your health, it is vital to find healthy ways to cope with or reduce it.

Some ways of managing stress include:

  • Identify your triggers. Do you know what makes you feel physically or mentally distressed? Knowing what impacts you can help you find ways to cope.
  • Exercise your body. Regular exercise — such as walking outside or playing a sport — produces stress-relieving hormones and helps your overall physical health.
  • Exercise your mind. Deep breathing and meditation are examples of practices that can help you relax and collect yourself.
  • Practice self-care. Taking care of yourself is more than lighting a candle or taking a bath. Identify the things that bring you joy and do those as often as you can.
  • Avoid alcohol and other drugs. Often, substance use can worsen stress. If you have a substance use disorder or a similar issue, there are options to help you reclaim your health.

One of the most effective ways to cope with stress and its effects on your mental health is having a trained professional to help guide you through it. Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a safe and confidential guided session to help you process your life, feelings and emotions.

These sessions may be led by a counselor, a social worker or even a psychologist, but they always prioritize you. Psychotherapy is a tried and tested way to help alleviate a broad spectrum of mental health effects.

“Mental health professionals can help you adjust your attitude toward stress,” Dr. Carroll explains. “If stress impacts you in a negative way, I definitely recommend therapy.”

Learn About Mental Health