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Stress is an unavoidable reality of modern life, so it essential we take time out to properly de-stress.

Regularly attending a spa or salon and investing in quality relaxation treatments can help combat the damaging effects of stress.

Aside from the more commonly known side-effects of stress, more worryingly, your brain can actually suffer real physical damage as a result of on-going stress. The information below reveals how stress can negatively affect your brain, and why proper relaxation is the answer.

There are two types of stress - acute stress and cronic stress (and not all stress is bad).

Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced in such moments of extreme excitement. They help us think and move fast in an emergency, prime our brains for peak performance and can even save our life.

Once the threat has passed, our levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.

But chronic stress — the kind most of us face day in, day out — is the secret assassin. 

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Cortisol (a glucocorticoid) is a hormone necessary for several major body processes to function normally. It’s integral to blood sugar regulation, proper immune function, blood pressure, and the metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

However, long term stress can result in the excessive and non-stop production of cortisol, which cannot only make our body sick, it negatively and physically impacts our brain as well.

Cortisol, streams through our systems all day long, which is what makes it so dangerous in excessive amounts. Weight gain, anxiety, mood swings, poor sleep, short attention span, and memory issues are common signs of stress due long periods of elevated cortisol. Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands and can leaving us feeling exhausted and wired but tired. 

And while stress and cortisol take a toll on the body, they take an equally high toll on our brains “behind the scenes".

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  • Stress creates free radicals that kill brain cells

    Cortisol creates a surplus of the neurotransmitter glutamate which in turn creates free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that attack brain cells much in the same way that oxygen attacks metal, causing it to rust. Free radicals actually punch holes in the brain cell walls, causing them to rupture and die.

    Losing sleep, eating junk food, drinking too much alcohol, or smoking cigarettes to relax all actually produce more free radicals, further adding to our free radical load. This is why spa provides the best kind of quality relaxation.
  • Chronic stress makes us forgetful and emotional

    Memory problems are one of the more obvious signs of stress. This is because when we’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen. This can impair our judgement and result in making bad decisions.
  • Stress creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety

    Stress builds up an area of our brain called the amygdala (the brains fear centre), increasing the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of the brain, thus making us more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.

sparelax3Photo courtesy of Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa, Co Durham

  • Stress halts the production of new brain cells

Every day we lose brain cells, but every day we have the opportunity to create new ones. Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation – just like fertiliser for the brain.

BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. But cortisol halts the production of BDNF resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed. 

  • Stress depletes critical brain chemicals causing depression

Our brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters.

Excessive cortisol reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin (the ‘happy molecule’) and dopamine (‘the motivation molecule’). Too little serotonin and dopamine can lead to depression.

Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment of life. 

sparelax5Photo courtesy of Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa, Co Durham

  • Stress can make us look foolish and shrinks the brain

Stress can cause our brain to seize up at the worst possible times — for example exams, job interviews, and public speaking. If we’re faced with a life and death situation, instinct can replace rational thought and reasoning, so while this is in fact a survival mechanism, it’s not at all helpful in modern day situations.

Additionally excess cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories and is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over. 

  • Stress causes brain cells to commit suicide

Stress leads to premature ageing on a cellular level, causing cells in both our body’s and our brains to commit suicide prematurely.

Relaxation room 3Photo courtesy of QHotels, The Midland, Manchester

Chronic stress destroys our happiness and peace of mind. It wears us down mentally and emotionally, and saps the joy from life. Some side effects of stress that impact our mental well-being include:


• excessive worry and fear
• anger and frustration
• impatience with self and others
• mood swings, crying spells or suicidal thoughts
• insomnia, nightmares, disturbing dreams
• trouble concentrating and learning new information
• racing thoughts, nervousness
• forgetfulness, mental confusion
• difficulty in making decisions
• feeling overwhelmed
• irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances
• excessive defensiveness or suspicion
• increased smoking, alcohol, drug use, gambling or impulse buying


Chronic stress may seem to be an unavoidable part of life, but there are proactive steps that can reduce its wear and tear on our brain. 

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1. Make time for regular ‘quality time’ away from all the stresses of life by having quality relaxation treatments (at least once a month) and regularly attending a spa or salon. 
2. Start a daily meditation practice.  Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to master our thoughts. Stress does not come from events in our life as much as it comes from our thoughts — our automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions — about these events.
3. Try one of the many mind-body relaxation techniques – many of which can be found in your local spa or salon.
4. Stop free radical damage by eating diet high in antioxidant-rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, and green tea.
5. Increase levels of brain-boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong mind-body orientations like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong.
6. Consider an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens increase our resilience to stress while supporting overall health. They promote balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm. Examples of adaptogens include ginseng, holy basil, Arctic root, and bacopa.

sparelax8Photo courtesy of Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa, Co Durham

Article sources:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201402/chronic-stress-can-damage-brain-structure-and-connectivity
https://bebrainfit.com/effects-chronic-stress-brain/
http://scdlifestyle.com/2013/10/why-cortisol-is-good-for-you/

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