But did you know it’s actually physically bad for your brain as well?
Recent research out of the University of California, Berkeley, offers sobering news for business owners battling chronic stress. The work was done by Daniela Kaufer, a professor of integrative biology, and colleagues. It peered into the brain to look at how being stressed out over a long period of time actually affects the physical structure of the brain.
The Bad News
Understanding the results required a quick biology refresher. As you may remember from high school science class, there are two basic types of material that make up the brain--white matter and gray matter. Gray matter is the neurons that store and process information. White matter insulates these neurons and helps information travel around the brain. How much of each you have can affect brain function.
When the research team looked at one specific section of the brains of severely stressed out rats--the hippocampus, which regulates emotion--they found relatively more white matter and less gray matter. That’s akin to building a superhighway between your brain’s most basic responses, such as fear and anxiety, which are seated in another region called the amygdala, and your consciousness, making those affected this way more likely to experience uncontrollable, unhealthy emotion.
"You can imagine that if your amygdala and hippocampus are better connected, that could mean that your fear responses are much quicker, which is something you see in stress survivors," Kaufer said. In essence, your brain ends up screaming, ‘This is terrible!’ at you, even though the actual event is far more mild. Being quicker to experience fear in this way sets the stage for a host of mental problems, such as anxiety and depression, later on. In addition, Kaufer notes, stress can slow the process of developing new neurons, which has negative effects on learning and memory.
The Better News
This study seems like grim news for the chronically stressed, but several caveats need to be borne in mind. First, the most worrying such brain changes happen in those who have experienced truly severe stress, such as, say, combat soldiers, disaster survivors, or victims of child abuse. A business owner with demanding customers or a perpetually overcrowded inbox is unlikely to have such severe effects. Still, brain changes like this to even a small degree can’t be great for your long-term mental health.
Also, as ever with any evolving science, more research is needed to support and clarify the findings, as well as suggest effective therapies. In the meantime, though, reading about frightening studies like this might help scare Type-A personalities straight when it comes to getting their stress under control. After all, there are plenty of effective techniques for keeping your stress in check and bringing some sanity to your routine that don’t require a radical overhaul of your life. Maybe it’s time to give them a try.