When Stress Is Toxic: Your Brain and Stress Response

During times of stress, we often feel as if we are “losing it.” We can feel consumed by paralyzing anxiety. At this point, our brains often can no longer experience the functioning of higher executive areas of the brain, and this leads to times where the brain goes “blank,” such as during a major exam.

What Is Stress?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, stress is “the brain’s response to any demand.” This definition shows that stress is normal and necessary and not necessarily harmful. It becomes harmful when it is excessive. Excessive stress is toxic stress.

The Prefrontal Cortex

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that serves as a control center to our emotions, keeping our impulse nature in check. In extremely stressful situations, the brain sends chemicals away from the prefrontal cortex towards the hypothalamus, which manages the stressful feelings.

The prefrontal cortex is sensitive to stress. This region of the brain does not fully reach maturity until after one’s teen years. Home to the neural circuitry for abstract thought, it is also responsible for concentration and helping us stay on task while storing information in our working memory.

When unstressed, the neurons within the executive center of the prefrontal cortex run smoothly and help us solve problems and think calmly. When stress hits, our brains become flooded with norepinephrine and dopamine, which are arousal chemicals. They tell the prefrontal cortex to shut off neuron firing.

Stress Hormones

At the same time, the adrenal glands tell our bodies to release the stress hormone cortisol, which also invades the prefrontal cortex. In fact, studies show that after exposure to neurotransmitters or stress hormones, the neurons in the prefrontal cortex disconnect and stop firing.

Studies have shown that when a person is exposed to extended periods of excessive stress, the areas of the brain involved with sustained reasoning start to shrivel, the dendrites in the amygdala enlarge, and those in the prefrontal cortex shrink. In fact, it has been found that when a person is exposed to an extensive level of stress, prefrontal gray matter shrinks.

High levels of cortisol wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. In addition, extended levels of elevated stress can kill brain cells, even leading to the reduction of the size of the brain.

High levels of cortisol wear down the brain’s ability to function properly. In addition, extended levels of elevated stress can kill brain cells, even leading to the reduction of the size of the brain.

Scientists hope to use what they learn about the brain’s response to stress and what causes it to degenerate from reflective to reflexive. Current research may lead to effective treatments for stress.

Things That Cause Stress

Childhood stressors include exposure to violence, abuse of all types, neglect, and divorce/relationship conflict of parents. The consequences of these stressors are affect dysregulation, provocative behaviors, poor school performance, anxiety, depression, avoidance of intimacy, and disturbance of attachment.

Exposure to chronic stressors in childhood lead to lifelong neurobiological disorders, which result in long-term issues such as mood disorders, anxiety, immune dysfunctions, medical issues, structural changes in the brain, and lowered age of death.

Adult stressors tend to be mainly caused by these same childhood experiences and their consequences over time, including major medical issues. Over time, adults with stress have often resorted to unhealthy coping mechanisms, which can also contribute to increased stress. These include substance abuse, dangerous living environments, and other unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Managing Stress

Currently, the best methods for managing stress include relaxation exercises, deep breathing, meditation, and medication.

When in a stressful situation, we can learn to help ourselves in the moment by using cognitive behavior strategies. These include the above mentioned suggestions as well as:

  • Taking a “time out,” or walking away temporarily from a stressful situation.
  • Repeating an internal “mantra,” such as “Everything’s going to be okay.”
  • Going for a walk or taking some other type of physical action to get your energy out of your body.
  • Using mindfulness, such as focusing on something using your senses. You might look for everything in your environment that is a specific color, notice sounds, or something else.
  • Using a mental activity such as listing from a to z one thing you are grateful for, starting with each letter of the alphabet.

Pharmaceutical companies are testing the drugs prazosin and guanfacin, which are now used for other purposes, to see if they can help keep the mind functioning well during experiences of stress.

Healing Chronic Stress

It is important to realize that stressful events are stored differently in our brains than non-stressful events. Most episodic memories are stored in our brain’s left hemisphere, which can be recalled and processed cognitively. Stressful events are stored in our brain’s right hemisphere and are felt viscerally. Healing from traumatic memories requires a more extensive approach to healing than merely implementing coping skills.

With chronic stress caused by extensive exposure to traumatic events, it is often helpful to meet with a therapist. The best types of therapy for healing posttraumatic stress involve somatic/experiential interventions such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) and other types of bilateral-stimulation methods.

I would also like to mention ego-state therapy as a powerful tool for healing childhood trauma. All of these methods together can enable individuals struggling with long-term stress to finally find relief and put the painful memories to bed.


  1. Arnsen, A., Mazure, C., & Sinha, R. (2012). This is your brain in meltdown. Scientific American, 4(306), 48-53. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22486116
  2. Bernstein, R. (2016, July 26). The mind and mental health: How stress affects the brain. Retrieved from http://www.tuw.edu/content/health/how-stress-affects-the-brain
  3. Fox, H. & Sinha, R. (2014). The role of guanfacine as a therapeutic agent to address stress-related pathophysiology in cocaine dependent individuals. Advances in Pharmacology, 69, 217-265. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-420118-7.00006-8
  4. Paulsen, S. (2017). When there are no words: Repairing early trauma and neglect from the attachment period with EMDR therapy. Bainbridge Island, WA: A Bainbridge Institute for Integrative Psychology Publication.
  5. Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G., & Siegel, S. D. (2005). Stress and health: Psychological, behavioral, and biological determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 607-628. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.1.102803.144141

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Sharie Stines, PsyD

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.