Your Brain on Stress
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.

Key points

  • Both chronic and everyday stress affect our brain and cognitive functioning.
  • Response to stress may be sex-related.
  • Additional stress from the holiday season can be managed and/or avoided.

Long-term stress effects on the brain

Research on stress and its effect on the body and brain has been done for many years. Much research data suggest that some disorders could originate from prolonged stress. The newest study comes out of England (McManus, E. et al., 2022). The study had a large population sample (over 500,000 participants). The researchers defined four groups with high or low levels of childhood and/or adulthood stress and used advanced MRI (T1 and diffusion-weighted). The study concentrated on the brain regions associated with the stress response, which is the limbic system. All participants were also administered tests that measured executive functions and working memory.

The findings were very interesting as the response to stress turned out to be sex-related. The female participants who experienced a higher level of stress during childhood had reduced connectivity within certain limbic structures (posterior thalamic radiation and cingulum of the hippocampus). However, male participants who experienced a higher level of stress in adulthood had similar changes in brain microstructure in the limbic system structures mentioned above.

What is even more important is that both males and females who experienced high levels of stress in childhood and adulthood had decreased executive functions and working memory, two cognitive functions that are very important for successful functioning in life. The researchers also mentioned that stress across one’s lifespan was associated with mental health problems.

What about the effects of everyday stress?

The answers come from a study by the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay (VonDras, D.D. et al., 2005). The researchers studied the effect of everyday stress on episodic memory (remembering daily and past personal experiences). The subjects were 98 adults ages 19-89.

The results suggested that everyday stress, such as hassles, irritations, and challenging life events, may accelerate age-related worsening of episodic memory. Other studies showed an association between perceived stress and the worsening of everyday cognitive functioning (Boals, A. & Banks, J.B., 2012) and acute stress effects on attention and working memory (LeBlanc, V.R., 2009).

Can stress have any positive effects on the brain?

There are some limited studies in this area. Some studies suggest that stress can improve brain performance in some people and some situations. Pre-learning stress has some positive effects on word recall (Schwabe, L. et al., 2008), and post-learning stress can affect the recall of slides that had emotional content (Cahill, L. et al., 2003).

What about holiday stress?

Most people would agree that holidays can be stressful, but there are not many research studies done on holiday stress. In the 2016 study (Mutz, M.), the researcher concluded that the “Christmas period is related to a decrease in life satisfaction and emotional well-being.” However, people with a higher degree of religiousness were an exception to that pattern. Another study published in 2002 (Kasser, T. & Shelton, K.M.) concluded that the materialistic aspect of Christmas may affect a family’s well-being and that spiritual activities help people feel more satisfied.

How to deal with stress during the holidays

There are some things that can be done to avoid or manage stress during the holidays, such as being organized, taking time for yourself, budgeting holiday spending, and avoiding topics that are controversial and raise emotions.

Holiday times may trigger depression.

Please get professional help if you think this may happen to you. Most insurances now offer mental health services, and most therapists do telemedicine, so no matter where you live, you can find somebody in your state that still takes in new patients. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

And please remember that holidays are about the holiday spirit, about celebrating the time you have with your family and close friends, not about how much food you have and how perfectly it was cooked and prepared. Enjoy your holidays!


Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.


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