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Proven Ways to Reduce the Damaging Effects of Chronic StressChronic stress can have a significant impact on both your physical and mental health. While it’s not possible to eliminate stress entirely (and you don’t want to). It’s not all bad. There are several strategies that can help you reduce its negative impact on your brain and body.

What Exactly Is Chronic Stress?

On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response that happens whenever you ask your body to adapt or respond in some way to anything. Technically, you are stressing your body every time you get up out of a chair, learn a new skill, or exercise. In your brain, when stress is not severe and neurons have time to recover adequately, it’s a positive thing, causing connections to become stronger paving neural pathways.

Stress is just part of living — even healthy living.

Although stress is absolutely essential, it can turn harmful when you have too much of it for too long. Then it’s called chronic stress.  When stress becomes a persistent formidable condition, and you don’t do anything to help your brain and body deal with it, it can have lasting, negative consequences. Chronic stress can harm your physical brain and its functioning

Cortisol: Too Much of a Good Thing Isn’t Good

Cortisol is the hormone released when your body activates the fight or flight stress response. At first, cortisol has a beneficial anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety effect. However, over time, it converts into an inflammatory, harmful substance in the brain and body. Inflammation in the brain has been indicated in autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and many other illnesses and mental health conditions, including depression, OCD, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and more. 

Chronic stress is associated with reduced volume of the hippocampus, a part of the brain vital to memory. Research shows that stress can inhibit the growth of or even kill new brain cells in the hippocampus, impairing memory. Other studies found that chronic stress hormones have a toxic effect on certain regions of the brain. Researchers at Yale University discovered that stress literally shrinks the brain. Over time, too much cortisol hard-wires pathways between the hippocampus and amygdala, the brain’s threat detector, creating a brain that’s predisposed to be in a constant state of fight-or-flight.

Seven Ways to Lessen the Damaging Effects of Chronic Stress

The fact that we know chronic stress is at the root of many health problems is actually a good thing because we also know that you can do something about it. We’ve already established that stress is a necessary part of life. The answer then is not to try to get rid of it.

That’s impossible.

The solution is to change the way you handle it so that it doesn’t hurt you. Here are some ways to do that:

Change the way you think about stress

Unlike other animals, humans are unique in that danger doesn’t have to be actually happening for our bodies to respond. That big, sophisticated brain in your head can go into full anxiety mode when just remembering, anticipating, or imagining something. You can literally put yourself into a panic when there’s no actual danger present. Thankfully, the converse is also true. You can work yourself out of a stressful state just with your mind.

Science shows that what you believe about stress influences how it affects your body. If you think that stress is a threat, harmful in every way, and debilitating, your belief is going to dictate how your body and brain react. Alternately, if you believe that stress is challenging, motivating, and has the potential to promote positive, personal growth, your body will respond differently.

So, embracing stress is more important than reducing stress. Your mind and body are powerful allies. Your mindset shapes how your body responds.

Proven Ways to Reduce the Damaging Effects of Chronic Stress

Physical Movement

All forms of exercise cause the brain to release feel-good chemicals and give your body a chance to release stress. Even everyday activities such as house cleaning or yard work can reduce stress.

In Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John Ratey, posits that because stress is our bodies directing us to act, physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. Ratey explains that it’s what happens after exercise that really optimizes the brain. The protective effects of exercise include:

  • Exercise calms the amygdala, raising the brain’s fight-or-flight activation threshold.
  • It kickstarts the cellular recovery process by increasing intracellular energy production. This allows neurons to meet fuel demands without increasing toxic oxidative stress.
  • Exercise triggers the production of more receptors for insulin which means better use of blood glucose and stronger cells. It also increases synaptic strength, neuroplasticity, and neurogenesis.
  • Exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) production. BDNF acts like fertilizer to help brain cells function, grow, and make new neurons.
  • Exercise relaxes the resting tension in your muscles which breaks the stress feedback loop to your brain. Your brain figures if your body isn’t stressed, it doesn’t need to be either.

Get More Sleep

Stress and sleep are closely linked. Stress can negatively impact the quality and duration of sleep, and sleep loss can trigger the body’s stress response system, which can lead to an increase in stress hormones. This can further disrupt sleep. It’s a harmful cycle. 

Sleep can reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels and keeping the immune system and anxiety in check. In research, adults with lower stress levels sleep more hours per night than adults with higher stress levels. There are several reasons why adequate sleep is associated with stress reduction:

  • Restoration of Brain Function

During sleep, the brain undergoes various processes that contribute to memory consolidation, learning, and emotional regulation. Adequate sleep ensures that the brain functions optimally, helping to cope with stressors more effectively.

  • Stress Hormone Regulation

Sleep has a significant impact on the regulation of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Cortisol levels typically follow a natural circadian rhythm, peaking in the morning and reaching their lowest point in the evening. Disrupting this rhythm by not getting enough sleep can lead to elevated cortisol levels, contributing to increased stress.

  • Cognitive Function

Sleep is essential for cognitive functions such as attention, decision-making, and problem-solving. When well-rested individuals can approach stressors with clearer thinking and make more reasoned decisions,it reduces the perceived intensity of stressful situations.

Proven Ways to Reduce the Damaging Effects of Chronic Stress

Mindfulness Practices

Engaging in mindfulness activities, such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation, can help you stay present and reduce the impact of stress and anxiety on your mind and body. Most of the research available so far concerning this topic is specifically on anxiety and meditation.

  • Mindfulness reduces anxiety as much as drugs.

In research, meditation was found to be as effective as drugs for anxiety disorders. In the study, anxiety was significantly reduced in every session where subjects meditated. Brain imaging found that meditation-related anxiety relief was associated with increased activation of areas of the brain involved with executive function and worrying. 

  • Mindfulness Encourages greater resilience and reduces stress

Meditation also activates the brain region associated with more adaptive responses to stressful or negative situations. In other words, it increases resilience. Studies show that activation of this part of the brain corresponds with faster recovery to a baseline state after being negatively provoked. According to the research, mindfulness practices turn down activity in the amygdala and increase the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex. Both can help you be less reactive to and recover better from stress when you experience it.

Get More Social Support

Your brain’s top concern is always your survival, and it knows there’s safety in numbers. That’s why your brain likes to be part of a group and experiences stress when it’s not. Whether it’s fish, antelope, or humans, animals that find themselves on the periphery of their social groups are the ones most at risk from predators. Being in that situation, which your brain views as constant danger, causes the brain to stay in self-preservation mode — always on alert.

Your brain interprets social threats just like other threats. Every unreturned phone call or unanswered text becomes a reason for your brain to sound the alarm. In fact, the pain of social rejection, exclusion, or loss, activates the same areas as physical pain in your brain. Feeling isolated can put your brain in a state of low-grade chronic stress with physical and mental consequences

Socializing with friends and family can help decrease stress, anxiety, and depression. Having a support system and feeling a sense of belonging can improve self-worth and help you feel connected. Make the effort to connect with friends and family regularly or join a support group or club that you’re interested in. 

Proven Ways to Reduce the Damaging Effects of Chronic Stress

Seek Professional Help

If chronic stress is significantly impacting your daily life, consider seeking support from a mental health professional. They can provide guidance and strategies to help you manage stress more effectively. Some of which are:

  • Talk therapy

Reducing stress can be as simple as talking about it with a trained therapist. There are different types of stress management therapies that have been proven to help. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) are two talk therapy methods that can focus specifically on stress. Preventive stress management teaches people how to recognize, prepare for, and respond to stressors, with coping skills they can use during and before the stressful event takes place.


CBT is a type of talk therapy that focuses on the connection between thoughts, feelings or emotions, and behaviors, and how making changes to one can alter others, as well as outcomes.There are CBT programs specifically for stress that can successfully help people change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in ways that promote relaxation and reduce stress. 


Mindfulness-based stress reduction combines mindfulness techniques with stress management techniques to prevent and address stress. It may include meditation, relaxation, yoga, body awareness, and other practices. MBSR has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and burnout, and improve quality of life.


Stress is just part of living — even healthy living.

Although stress is essential, a problem does arise when you have too much of it long-term, and you can’t or don’t do anything to help your brain and body deal with it.  It’s essential to find healthy ways to manage ongoing stress that work for you. Often, a multi-faceted approach incorporating several practices produces the best results.

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