Stress and Your Brain!

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By: Sharon Vining, RN, OCN, BSN



Scenario – Mr. Caveman is being chased by a saber tooth tiger.  His sympathetic nervous system kicks in.    The adrenal gland releases cortisol which goes to the brain.  His heart rate and breathing increases, his body goes into high alert.  The cortisol helps him to outrun the tiger for a short distance. The saber tooth tiger then gets eaten by the dinosaur and the caveman gets away.   The caveman’s parasympathetic kicks in.  Counter-calm hormones rush to adrenal gland to suppress further release of cortisol.  Other hormones rush to the brain and round up all the remaining cortisol and escort it back to the adrenal gland. Heart rate and breathing returns to normal.  Metabolic equilibrium is restored.

When we are in immediate danger, the body is designed to release cortisol.  This stimulates our fight or flight response.  This will save Mr. Caveman’s life for the short term.  During times of stress, the hippocampus is flooded with cortisol.  The hippocampus is a small seahorse shaped component found in the medial temporal lobe.  It plays an important role in consolidating short-term memory to a long-term memory and navigational abilities.

The hippocampus has a high level of glucocorticoid receptors.  These receptors have a high affinity for cortisol.  In the short term, it will aid Mr. Caveman to live to fight another day.  Cortisol in the long term is very damaging to the neurons of the hippocampus.  High levels cortisol over a long period of time will decrease the genesis of new neurons and cause dendrites in pyramidal cells to atrophy.

The following conditions have been associated with a malfunctioning hippocampus:

Alzheimer’s disease

Cushing’s syndrome


Severe depression


Impaired immune system

Compromise in the Blood-Brain Barrier


Heart disease



Before you activate your sympathetic nervous system and send more cortisol to your hippocampus, all is not lost.  Stress management is more important than ever.  Eating right, getting plenty of sleep, mediation and yoga all aid in stress management.


As far as our Mr. Caveman, he went back to school got a degree in building pyramids.  To relieve his stress he took up cave painting and playing the drums.  What will you do?

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