Fear and Long-Term Stress Shrinks Your Brain

What is Fear?

Fear is a human emotion that is triggered by a perceived threat. It is a basic survival mechanism that signals our bodies to respond to danger with a fight or flight response. As such, it is an essential part of keeping us safe.

However, it is important to note that when we live in constant fear, whether from physical dangers in our environment or threats we perceive, we can become incapacitated.

The Brain Is Plastic

When we say the brain is plastic it does not mean that the brain is literally made of plastic. Brain plasticity, also known as neuroplasticity, is a term that refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience. Now this is very good in terms of our brain to adapting to different environments. But what if we were constantly experiencing trauma or exposed to prolonged fear. How would our brain adapt?  

Neuro refers to neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system, and plasticity refers to the brain’s malleability. We could think of brain plasticity in two ways, the ability to adapt and strive in an ever changing environment or our brain’s inability to adapt to an environment that is stressful. There is so much that the brain can endure but what does it mean when the brain no longer has the capacity or the capability to adapt.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental condition that requires treatment.

PTSD once called shell shock or battle fatigue syndrome, is a serious condition that can develop after a person has experienced or witnessed a traumatic or terrifying event in which serious physical harm occurred or was threatened. PTSD is a lasting consequence of traumatic ordeals that cause intense fear, helplessness, or horror, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, an accident, war, or natural disaster. Families of victims can also develop PTSD, as can emergency personnel and rescue workers.

Most people who experience a traumatic event will have reactions that may include shock, anger, nervousness, fear, and even guilt. These reactions are common, and for most people, they go away over time. For a person with PTSD, however, these feelings continue and even increase, becoming so strong that they keep the person from living a normal life. People with PTSD have symptoms for longer than one month and cannot function as well as before the event occurred.

Are there any implications of fear and long-term stress?

What happens when we are in a constant state of fight-or-flight?

THE BRAIN SHRINKS IN A CONSTANT STATE OF FLIGHT-OR- FLIGHT RESPONSE

Mental Disorders like PTSD, persons who experience terrible situations for long periods of time. What they experience can change their brain. So brain plasticity can go two different directions here first the brain can grow so that it’s nice and fluffy and strong or it can shrink it down. So, what does PTSD do to the brain? It shrinks the size of the temporal lobe and increase the size of the amygdala structure that is processing fear information.

It also shrinks the size of a key brain area the hippocampus, which is critical for long-term memory. The hippocampus has been more recently implicated in creativity and imagination. Because what imagination is, is taking those things you have in your memory and putting them together in a new way. So just in the way that the hippocampus allows us to think about the past and memory, it also allows us to imagine the future.

Long-term stress literally kills the cells in your hippocampus that contribute to the deterioration of your memory. Also, zapping your creativity. 

Published by Amy

Psychology Graduate and Mental Health Coach, I offer support services for adults living with mental health issues. Understanding your struggles is the first step towards healing.

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