When the stress response is triggered, the hypothalamus in the brain starts doing overtime, struggling to keep the systems in balance. There is a crisis and the body needs extra energy to deal with the crisis by producing extra cortisol. As soon as the cortisol level rises, it starts to communicate with a whole range of body systems. It puts brakes on the immune system, the capacity to learn and the ability to relax. In effect, the cortisol is having an internal conversation with other bodily systems saying “Stop what you are doing! This is an emergency! Don’t waste time fighting bugs, learning or connecting new pathways. Don’t relax! I want all your attention on this problem!”1. When the situation is over, the cortisol is gradually reabsorbed and the body returns to normal.

But if the stress persists, and high levels of cortisol remains in the body over a prolonged period of time, then it can have a damaging effect on other parts of the body. It can affect the immune system, making it less responsive, even killing the lymphocytes (white blood cells) and preventing the new ones forming2. If the level of cortisol continues to remain high, the receptors for cortisol can close down and less able to provide feedback to stop producing more. Without this feedback, the stress response can get stuck in the “on” position and the body continues to produce more cortisol that can lead to neuron loss3. If the stress goes on for a very long period, the hippocampus which is central to learning and memory, may start to malfunction. The person might get forgetful. The amygdala, which controls the emotions and the fight or flight response, gets revved up and excited by the high amount of cortisol. The prefrontal cortex that is the executive part of the brain which controls emotions, focuses attention, makes plans for future gets affected. Dopamine and serotonin levels that regulate mood, pleasure and award system, and appetite, fall.


Counselling and psychotherapy can help!



1: Gerhard, S. (2015). Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain, New York: Routledge.

2: Martin, P. (1997). The Sickening Mind, London: Harper Collins

3: Moghaddam, B., Bolinao, M., Stein-Behrens, B. & Sapolsky, R. (1994). Glucocortisoids mediate the stress-induced accumulation of glutamate, Brain Research, Vol. 655, No. 1-2, 251-254.