Understanding the Brain

Chronic stress

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Chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period over which an individual perceives he or she has no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which occurs a release of corticosteroids. If this continues for a long time, it can cause damage to an individual's physical and mental health.


Animals exposed to distressing events over which they have no control respond by releasing of corticosteroids.[1][2] These, if prolonged, lead to structural changes in their brains. Changes happen to neurons and their synapses in the hippocampus[3] and medial prefrontal cortex.[4] These produce impairments in working memory,[5] spatial memory,[5] and increased aggression.[6]

Linked to impairment of the medial prefrontal cortex are deficits in the part of the striatum with which it is linked.[7] This can bias decision-making strategies, as affected individuals shift from flexible behavior to one dominated by habit.[7] Changes also occur to dopaminergic activity in the prefrontal cortex.[5]


In humans, symptoms of chronic stress can vary from anxiety, depression, social isolation, headache, abdominal pain or lack of sleep to back pain and difficulty concentrating. Other symptoms include:

In severe cases it can lead to panic attacks or a panic disorder. Stress plays a role in triggering or worsening depression and cardiovascular disease.[9]


There are a variety of methods to control chronic stress, including exercise, healthy diet, stress management, relaxation techniques, adequate rest, and relaxing hobbies. It has been suggested that magnesium supplements can help.[10]

See also


  1. Sapolsky RM. (1998). Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide To Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. 2nd Rev Ed, W. H. Freeman ISBN 978-0716732105
  2. McEwen BS (2007). "Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: central role of the brain". Physiol Rev 87 (3): 873–904. doi:10.1152/physrev.00041.2006. PMID 17615391. http://physrev.physiology.org/cgi/reprint/87/3/873. 
  3. Sousa N, Lukoyanov NV, Madeira MD, Almeida OF, Paula-Barbosa MM (2000). "Reorganization of the morphology of hippocampal neurites and synapses after stress-induced damage correlates with behavioral improvement". Neuroscience 97 (2): 253–266. doi:10.1016/S0306-4522(00)00050-6. PMID 0799757. 
  4. Radley JJ, Sisti HM, Hao J, Rocher AB, McCall T, Hof PR, McEwen BS, Morrison JH (2004). "Chronic behavioral stress induces apical dendritic reorganization in pyramidal neurons of the medial prefrontal cortex". Neuroscience 125 (1): 1–6. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2004.01.006. PMID 15051139. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Mizoguchi K, Yuzurihara M, Ishige A, Sasaki H, Chui DH, Tabira T (2000). "Chronic stress induces impairment of spatial working memory because of prefrontal dopaminergic dysfunction". J Neurosci 20 (4): 1568–74. PMID 10662846. http://www.jneurosci.org/cgi/reprint/20/4/1568. 
  6. Mineur YS, Prasol DJ, Belzung C, Crusio WE (September 2003). "Agonistic behavior and unpredictable chronic mild stress in mice". Behavior Genetics 33 (5): 513–519. doi:10.1023/A:1025770616068. PMID 14574128. http://www.kluweronline.com/art.pdf?issn=0001-8244&volume=33&page=513. Retrieved 2009-08-16. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 Dias-Ferreira E, Sousa JC, Melo I, Morgado P, Mesquita AR, Cerqueira JJ, Costa RM, Sousa N (2009). "Chronic Stress Causes Frontostriatal Reorganization and Affects Decision-Making". Science 325 (5940): 621–625. doi:10.1126/science.1171203. PMID 19644122. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Metcalfe, C, Davey Smith G et al. (March 2003). "Self-reported stress and subsequent hospital admissions as a result of hypertension, varicose veins and haemorrhoids". Journal of Public Health Medicine 25 (1): 62–68. doi:10.1093/pubmed/fdg013. PMID 12669921. http://jpubhealth.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/reprint/25/1/62. 
  9. Cohen S, Janicki-Deverts D, Miller GE (2007). "Psychological stress and disease". JAMA 298 (14): 1685–1687. doi:10.1001/jama.298.14.1685. PMID 17925521. http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/extract/298/14/1685.  "Stress Contributes To Range Of Chronic Diseases, Review Shows" ScienceDaily.com (Oct. 10, 2007) [1]
  10. Cernak I, Savic V, Kotur J et al. (March 2000). "Alterations in magnesium and oxidative status during chronic emotional stress". Magnesium research : official organ of the International Society for the Development of Research on Magnesium 13 (1): 29–36. PMID 10761188.