The stresses of modern life can be unyielding. Persistent pressure from bills, jobs, personal conflicts and other mainstays of Western society can make it feel like we spend our entire lives just trying to withstand the constant stress. And the consequences are severe: In addition to playing a role in the onset of cancer and a number of autoimmune diseases, research shows that stress can actually cause your brain to shrink.
A study from Yale University found that stressful life events provoke a reduction in gray matter even in people who are otherwise perfectly healthy. The study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, used brain scanning technology to examine gray matter in over 100 subjects. People who had recently experienced a traumatic event like the death of someone close to them, job loss, divorce or loss of their home showed shrinkage in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, self-control, blood pressure, glucose levels and other functions.
“The key take home message is that across the board the area that is most vulnerable to stress of any kind is the prefrontal cortex,” Rajita Sinha, a neurobiology professor and co-author of the study, said to Time. “It’s important for top-down regulation of our emotions, cognition, desires, and impulse control.”
Following the loss of brain matter, people can find themselves acting inappropriately and less able to control their emotions. The researchers also suggest that the changes in the brain could be predictors of future trouble like hypertension, diabetes and psychiatric disorders.
Furthermore, the reduction in gray matter could lower the brain’s resilience, making future stressful events even harder to deal with. “The accumulation of stressful life events may make it more challenging for these individuals to deal with future stress, particularly if the next demanding event requires effortful control, emotion regulation, or integrated social processing to overcome it,” Emily Ansell, assistant professor of psychiatry and lead author of the study, said in a press release.
Chronic stress did not cause the same reduction in gray matter compared to discrete, intense events, but the researchers suspect that ongoing stress of a lower intensity can erode the brain slowly over time, making people even more susceptible to the challenges of a major trigger.
Another study published in the CNS & Neurological Disorders – Drug Targets journal found that patients with PTSD have smaller hippocampal volume and therefore reduced memory capabilities. “The implications of these findings are that early abuse may inhibit neurogenesis and result in life long problems in learning, as well as promoting some of the PTSD symptoms that may be mediated by the hippocampus,” the study concludes.
Other research has shown that the brain’s hippocampus is 12 to 26 percent smaller in people who have lived through trauma like war and childhood sexual abuse, and the brain is also smaller in people who suffer from depression.
Of course, stressful events are part of even a happy, fulfilling life. In order to mitigate some of the damage to your mind and body, try maintaining a healthy diet, ample sleep, regular exercise and a daily relaxation practice like yoga or mindful meditation. In fact, one study even showed that people who meditate lose gray matter at a slower rate — the perfect antidote to the unfortunate but inevitable difficult periods of your life.