How Stress is Shrinking Your Brain

brain health stress Sep 01, 2022

The good news is, you CAN reverse it…

If you’ve been following my work for some time, you know how serious I am about making stress reduction a top priority. 

Countless studies have shown how unchecked stress can trigger the development of chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s… just to name a few. 

And a recent study uncovered an even more disturbing effect of chronic stress: It can literally shrink your brain.

The disturbing toll chronic stress takes on your body

How does this brain shrinkage happen, exactly?

Well, when you’re stressed, your body releases cortisol (also known as “the stress hormone”).

And when you’re regularly stressed, cortisol levels in the blood start to rise, affecting both your body and your brain.

Your brain is particularly vulnerable to cortisol build-up, since it kills off brain cells. Cortisol also eats away at muscle tissue. When these things happen, your brain loses physical mass—causing it to literally shrink. 

But stress doesn’t only affect your brain physically. It also wreaks havoc on how your brain functions.

How cortisol affects brain function

In their 2018 study, Boston University and Harvard Medical School researchers studied over 2,000 participants in their 40’s.

The researchers wanted to observe exactly how cortisol affected the participants’ cognitive performance, as well as their brain mass and structure.

They found subjects with higher cortisol levels (in other words, higher stress levels) performed significantly worse on cognitive tasks than those with moderate to low levels. Particularly on tasks like:

  • Attention span 
  • Executive function (prioritizing, organizing, emotional regulation)
  • Visual perception (the ability to visually interpret your environment)

The high-stress participants also had less gray matter—the dark tissue that contains most of the brain’s neurons (brain cells) and dendrites (the parts of the neuron that deliver and receive important information so cells can function). This region of the brain involves muscle control, seeing, hearing, speech, decision making, and self-control. 

Some of the participants with high cortisol levels also displayed a reduction in the size of their hippocampus—the part of the brain responsible for motivation, emotion, learning, and memory.

So, you can see why I’m always urging you to be vigilant about combating stress, and preventing stress hormones, like cortisol, from accumulating in your body. The risks are just way too high.

And while stress may be an unavoidable part of life, the good news is, there are simple, effective ways to manage it. 

Three easy ways to rescue your brain from stress—in 5 minutes or less

There are dozens of ways to counteract stress in your daily life. Yoga, meditation, sleep…the list goes on and on. But today, I’d like to give you three of my favorite “magic bullet” solutions that can relieve stress almost instantly. 

  1. Get up and move! Movement is a well-known and scientifically documented natural stress reliever. But most people today lead pretty sedentary lives. If you work at a desk, or spend a lot of time sitting during the day, here’s what I want you to do: On your smart-phone, set a recurring alarm for three different points in your day—morning, afternoon, and early evening. When the alarm goes off, that’s your signal to get up and move your body. Stand up, put on your favorite rhythmic music and go for a walk, or do some stretching.
  2. Breathe. Breath control exercises trigger the release of nitric oxide—a naturally occurring, calming chemical produced by your body. Click to experience my top guided breathing exercise
  3. Hum away the stress. Humming stimulates the vagus nerve. And when the vagus nerve is stimulated, it triggers the release of your body’s natural, stress-relieving “feel-good” chemicals (like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin). Here’s a quick free tutorial that shows you how.

Investing a few moments each day into stress relief not only feels good, doing so can help you reverse the negative toll stress takes on the brain.

Be Well, 

Jim Donovan, M.Ed.

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Nery de Souza-Talarico, J. et al. (2011). Effects of stress hormones on the brain and cognition: Evidence from normal to pathological aging. Dementia and Neurospychologia. Jan-Mar; 5(1): pp. 8 – 16. Retrieved from:

Echouffo-Tcheugui, J. (2018). Circulating cortisol and cognitive and structural brain measures: The Framingham Heart Study. Neurology. Nov; 91(21). Retrieved from:

🧐 Curious? Try This 12 Minute Sound Based Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercise Right Now For Free!

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About the author:

Jim Donovan M.Ed. is a multi-platinum musician, educator and TEDx speaker.

His mission is to share the restorative power of music through education and performance.

Donovan is an Assistant Professor and Director of Music and Wellness at Saint Francis University.

His viral TEDx Talk "How to Trick Your Brain Into Falling Asleep" has been viewed over 6 million times to date.

He currently performs with his band The Sun King Warriors who can best described as as a blend of rhythm heavy roots rock, with a strong dose of big barreling drums. 

Jim Donovan got his start as a founding member of the multi-platinum selling band Rusted Root. 

There he co-wrote the song “Send Me on My Way” featured in the movies "Ice Age", "Matilda" and the Netflix series "New Girl".

During his time with the band 1990-2005, he recorded and released seven full length albums. Including "When I Woke" (3x platinum).

He also had the honor of sharing the stage with many of his musical influences and heroes including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin (1995 US/UK tour), Carlos Santana (1997/2002 US tour), The Allman Brothers Band (1995/96 US tour), The Grateful Dead (1995 Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, PA) and many others.

Send Me On My Way also became the first song on Mars where it “woke up” NASA’s Mars Rover.


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