top of page

An Observation on the Effects of Stress on our Brain, Behavior and Memory

Jean M. Brice-Montas, Department of Psychology at: Argosy University.

Jean M. Brice-Montas is recently graduated at Department of Psychology at, Argosy University.

This Literature Review was supported in part by Argosy University Library, Proquest

and other Verified Research Websites.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed Directly to Jean M. Montas, Department of Psychology at, Argosy University; 2233 W Dunlap Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85021.

Contact at:


This paper is an exploration of ten different articles published by experimenters on the results found on the effects of stress on human’s brain, behavior and memory (cognition). Stress has always been considered to have seriously affects health condition, but not everyone known its severity level. Stress has serious impact on different parts of human body and can greatly affect people’s health condition. In fact, the American Psychological Association found stress can affect both parents and children behavior, it can also derail their relationship as well. Each articles expose a different type of effect stress has on human’s mind and body. August ET al. (2007) suggests that life stress and negative social exchanges can cause serious emotional distress, however, their severities vary by situation and the way people behave in those situations. While the other articles show that both acute and chronic stress have some other serious effects on behavior and memory, and can stimulate life threatening disease such as heart disease, diabetic, and cardiovascular complication. As a result those experimenters provide different results and solutions in their discoveries. This paper observes the works of ten different experimenters; Harris, August, Bluhm, Dohrenwend, Head, Kradin, Lupien, Roberts, Sarah, and Sawmi. After observing all studies, our conclusion is that more research needs to be done in order to show how serious stress is and offers ways to reverse those effects.

Keywords: Stress effects on brain behavior cognition, life stress, negative social exchanges, and relationships.

What are the effects of stress on human’s health, behavior and cognition?

Whenever an individual find himself/herself in a life threatening or a stressful situation, whether it is a minor or a major life event, the human brain is equipped to quickly respond to that situation automatically. In the world of psychology, this quick reaction is known as “fight or flight” (Argosy University, 2013). The fight or flight response is a survival response that can help human and other creatures to fight for survival when they at risk. However, this quick reaction engaged by the brain can have some serious impacts on people’s health condition, behavioral and memory. Numerous studies have been conducted on that matter in order to deepen the true effects stress has on various parts on human body; physically and psychologically. This literature review investigates the results found by those researchers on that matter.

Stress effects on Health:

Most of those researchers agreed on the fact that stress is vital part of human progression. In fact, the human body was designed to experience stress at some level and quickly react to it when it occurs. Life stressful events are being categorized in two parts; the acute stress is categorized as the stage one of stress before it escalates to a more serious situation that can cause diseases and mental illnesses. Chronic stress is compared to stage two in stressful events. This is when people are exposed to stressful situation for too a very long time without any relief such as relaxation, this can have serious negative impact on their health and mental condition, their behavior; and triggers drug and alcohol addiction.

The American Psychological Association (2012) has surveyed questionnaire many participants of different age group, parents and nonparents in order to figure out how serious stress has affected their lives. Results show that, despite affecting people’s behavior stress can also cause serious health problems and mental illnesses especially when it is being mishandle; which is the case for many parents, children and families around the country. In fact, stress has been suggested as one of the reasons that families are being destroyed. Most teenagers report that due to stress they get less attention from their parents, and as a result they look for attention elsewhere which in fact get them in trouble some times. The only issue with this result is that, no other experimental results were used to compare the finding as a way to support and make the result very authentic. When dealing with telephone questionnaire survey it is very hard to tell how truthful people are and if who they say they are, are exactly what they are.

Other than mental illnesses and life threatening diseases, stress can also deteriorate the body weight as well, in fact, Roberts’s et al. (2009) experiment where 71 women were observed for a few weeks. Results show that after that period of observation, some of those participants gained weight, while others lost weight during the process. For those who gained weight they have reported that they did not have any control over their body gaining weight. This experiment clearly shows that stress does not have the same effects on everyone. The argument is that some people’s body is very weak and as a result that body quickly gains weight while going to stressful situation, but for other individuals; they become slimmer while under stress. The results of that experiment and many other experiments that stress effects BMI and can also cause certain diseases such as obesity, diabetic, cancer, cardio vascular diseases.

According to Sarah et al. (2010), chronic cells stress can provoke drastic changes in the chromatin landscape that control cells in the abnormal states, which very often can cause diseases. Chronic stress can also affect the renewal cell system negatively and cause its deficiency, cellular dysfunction; in some cases the loss of cells. The results of this study are that acute stress causes injury to progenitor and stem cells that can cause diseases such as cancer and cardio vascular diseases. Chronic stress can also cause epigenetic changes as well. The experiment has not explained if chronic stress has the same impact on both genders and if it is the same for all age group. Correlation; stress triggers mental illnesses and some other types of diseases (August, Robert, Sarah, 2010).

Life Stress and Negative Social Exchanges on Emotional Distress

Social exchange is very important for an individual who is experiencing stress, but sometimes instead of helping it can cause a lot more issues. In fact, August ET al. (2007) has conducted an experimental research where 916 participants interviewed after being selected through a random sampling method. The experimenter examine linear and nonlinear for three categories of stressful life experiences: relationship losses, disruptive events, and functional impairment. The curiosity behind August’s experiment was to figure out whether stress has negative impacts on people’s behavior or not, and if it does, to what level.

The results show that there is a connection between early life stressful events and negative social exchanges, and can cause emotional distress, heart diseases and cardio vascular complications. The research findings also suggest that both early life stress events and negative social exchanges do not have the same impact on everyone, some people are more resistant that others to those effects. In other words; the severity of those complications varies by human system vulnerability and the types of stressful event that occur (August et al., 2007). Other researchers found results that travel in the same direction with August’s experiments and suggest other than emotional distress, negative exchanges and stressful situation can cause PTSD (Argosy University, 2013).

Relationship between early life events and posttraumatic stress

Bluhm and Lupien have both suggested that early life events have serious impact on individuals throughout the life span and can lead to mental illnesses such as PTSD. In fact, Lupien suggest that those stressful early life events can definitely trigger other similar events in people’s lives, and can make life experience a very stressful journey to those individuals.

Lupien et al. (2009) show that during the period of prenatal, infancy, adolescent, adulthood to late adulthood; stress has serious negative effects on various parts of the brain that regulate stress and anxiety, and the central nucleus of the Amygdala (Lupien et al., 2009). Furthermore, the results show that exposure to stress has three major effects on people, such as learning impairments, increase anxiety and depression level; and drug addiction (Lupien et al., 2009).

On the other hand, Bluhm experiment results show that the default network locates on the brain area that shows correlated low frequency activity at rest and that have been suggested to be involved in the processing of self-relevant stimuli. In his study, Bluhm made the choice of female samples that are in their middle age from three different institutions to do the experiment.The samples were divided into two categories; those with posttraumatic stress disorder and without posttraumatic stress disorder in order to see the difference in low frequency blood oxygen level dependent functional connectivity of the default network while at rest.

The finding is that the connectivity within the default network at rest is impaired in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder. Both Bluhm and Lupien’s observation result shows that stressful childhood life events can trigger other stressful events in adulthood, which can result to serious mental illnesses such as posttraumatic stress disorder and some other complicated stress related diseases. However, there are no other research findings that suggest the result found by both Bluhm and Lupien are accurate. Many authors agree on the fact that early life stressful event can trigger other similar events, however; stress causing posttraumatic stress disorder need to be explored a lot more before making a conclusion, because other articles results found that posttraumatic stress disorders can also be cause by other factors such as, genetics and war experiences ( Argosy University, Dorehnwend and Bruce P. 2010).

Stress effects on behavior:

Other than mental illnesses and other types of diseases that experimenters on those ten articles agreed on, they also agreed that stress has serious impact on people’s behavior from mood change to a lot more serious behavioral problems. Dorehnwend and Bruce P (2010) shows that when an individual is under stress, that individual develops certain types of behaviors that make stress become more dangerous to his/her health and can quickly deteriorate that person’s health condition and mental condition. Studies also show that socio-economic status does have its say on psychiatric disorders as well, according to Dorehnwend and Bruce P. (2010). Study show that people with a low socioeconomic background and low socioeconomic status are associated with an increase psychological stress and are less able to adapt to stress than others.

Despite the strong relationship that exist between psychiatric disorders and socio-economic status, results also show that other than behavioral genetic reasons, environmental adversity also plays a very important role in an individual developing posttraumatic stress disorder and some other types of psychopathology. This researcher’s result goes in parallel with what other researchers have found previously (Negative social exchanges cause emotional distress). The experiments also show that stress can also affect people attachment style on a long run to a point where they want to isolate themselves from others; and that can lead to drug, alcohol and other types of addiction which in turn cause more damages that is already been cause by stress (Kradin and Richard, 2011).

Stress effects on human Cognition:

Human judgment and taste can also be affected by stress when people are under instance stress especially men; this is what is been suggested by an observational research. In fact, throughout many of the articles selected experimenters show that stress can greatly affect people’s judgment and their choice types. In fact, Sawmi et al. (2012) have observed a few Caucasians male sample while going through stressful situation.

Those male samples were later divided into two groups for the experiment; one group was stress free while the other group of men was those under stress. The purpose of this experiment was to show whether those male judgment and their choice of women would be compromised. The results show that male participants who are experiencing psychological stress selected a significantly heavier female body size as maximally attractive compared to the control group or those without stress who chose slimmer females. However, by no mean the experiment suggest that every man who involves with a heavy set woman such a choice was influenced by stressful events in that man’s life.

Stress has serious effects on human memory as well; this can be as simple as interference with an individual capacity to encode information or his/her ability to retrieve information and can deteriorate to a much bigger mental issue later on. Head et al. (2012) expose stress as one of the factors that contribute to cognitive and brain decline in aging. However, she separates stress in two categories; the acute stress and the chronic stress. According to Head et al (2012) the acute stress has little or no impact on people’s brain and memory, but chronic stress does have great effects on human memory and age, to a point where it can contribute to certain mental illnesses such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, etc.

Stress can affect both long and short term memory by attacking neurons in the cortex, the hippocampus and the cerebellum region, Head et al. (2012). Researches show when an individual is under pressure, his/her heart races more, which bring more oxygen and glucose into that person’s bloodstream and into his/her brain as well. There are steroid hormones also called glucocorticoids and other stress hormones are also released. Since a human brain consumes up to 20% of the entire body energy, soon or later this will deprive the neurons of the energy needed to function normally, and as a result those neurons can undergo a disconnection between them and cause forgetfulness.

To begin this literature review, a clear explanation of what fight or flight is and what cause it. However, this automatic brain reaction has serious consequences on the human body and mind. That “fight or flight” reaction causes the releases of multiple chemicals in to the body, the release of those chemicals trigger biological change into the human body and accelerate the aging process. Meaning, higher stress drive the human brain toward a faster aging process (Head et al., 2012).

Evidence also shows that other than having serious effects on the hippocampus stress can reduce the hippocampal volume located in the brain area. Furthermore, it shows that if chronic stress is not being controlled on a timely manner, it will trigger learning impairments. A learning impairment is a person inability to learn new things according to experts (Argosy University, Head et al., 2013).

Often people think learning impairment can only be developed by children, however, Head et al. show that if an adult is experiencing chronic stress in his/her life there is a great possibility for that individual to develop learning impairments, which can later on lead to confusion and anxiety. Previous experiments show that same result and much more complication. In fact, results of other articles show that gender plays a key role in this finding. For instance, a woman’s brain that is going under stress can age faster than a man’s brain (Argosy University, 2013).


The 2010 American Psychological Association has suggested that stress has serious effects on people, and can deteriorate relationships that exist between them; especially in a children parent’s relationship. There is no doubt that there is some truth to the result, however, the type of research method used to conduct that survey was not the most appropriate one. As explained before, when doing telephone survey there is no way for the experimenter to observe those participants in order to see to what degree they are being truthful in their responses. People can always claim that they are parents while they are not, and that same situation could occur for those who claimed to be children. An experimental research should be conducted where participants would be choosing randomly from a diverse population and then being observed by the experimenter. There would a lot less room for errors and biases. As far as August et al. (2007), the study results did not go far enough to show why such a difference among individuals or if some individuals’ fight or flight system is weaker than others and to what degree negative social exchanges and early life stress events cause emotional distress, because there could be a lot of other reason for an individual to develop emotional distress such as addiction, career indecision, low self-esteem to name a few.

When it comes to posttraumatic disorder, Bluhm suggests that that the connectivity within the default network at rest is impaired in patients with posttraumatic stress disorder and believe the illness is responsible for such a complication (Bluhm et al., 2009). Bluhm was the first in 2009 to make such a revelation, as a result, the researcher’s finding cannot be trusted entirely, more researches need to be done on that matter in comparison to Bluhm experiment. Another concern is that the author only use female sample who are in their middle age. With that says age and genders are both factors of controversy in this result. Other than emotional distress and posttraumatic disorders, Dorehnwend and Bruce P. (2010) also believe that stress, adversity and low socioeconomic status can lead to psychiatric disorders as well. This result was based on patients’ observation who already have the illness or symptoms of the illness, a scientific or experimental research method would need to be used in a diverse group of participants in order to see if the conclusion will be the same Dorehnwend conclusion. Even though Head et al. in (2012) partly suggest that low social economic status can trigger psychiatric disorder, the reason is because Head et al. (2012) was more focus on the impact stress has on the memory and aging factor. According to Head et al. stress full events throughout life span lower people’s memory performance and cause a smaller hippocampal volume circulation. The samples were chosen among a diverse population of both genders; men and women between the ages of 8 to 80 years old. There are no say on whether the population was cross cultural with a diverse ethnic group, however, the experimenter did an outstanding job. This is also the same situation for Kradin’s finding on the effects stress has on attachment style, because many other experiments have supported the conclusion made by the experimenter (Kradin and Richard, 2011). In fact, Lupien et al. (2009) suggest that stress can affect people’s health, brain and memory by compromising the central nucleus of the amygdala. Despite the experimenters had used rats and monkeys sample to conduct the experiment because of ethical issues, science shows that there is no difference between those animal sample and human sample, and the result found in one can be used for the other. however, since the experimenter only use animal sample to conduct the experiment, which is ethically normal it is hard to tell if that result can be used for every race and culture especially when taking into account that many cultures/traditions would dismiss many mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression as serious mental disorders.

As far as Roberts et al. finding in (2009), the argument that stress affects body mass index, this argument a valid, but what cause some participants to lose weight while others gain weight, while under stress remain unclear and further investigation is needed. Even though other researchers such as Sarah et al. (2012) has suggested that one of the diseases stress can trigger is obesity, but being obese is totally different from gaining, losing weight while under stress. Finally Sawmi et al. finding in (2012) that shows men who are experiencing stress prefer heavy sized women that slimmer ones. This creates confusion, because experimenter only uses white male from England as sample to conduct the experiment. The American tradition is different from those living in England, so it would be unethical and untrue to believe that the result would be the same if it was conducted here in the U.S. in other words; a diverse cross cultural population with all ethnic groups is needed before making any assumption.

The experimenters have some good points on their researches results, some of them were able to compare their findings with other researches that was previously done and shown similarities; this in fact, validates their works. However, many believe that stress is a lot more serious than that have those experimenters have shown concerning stress’s effect on people health, behavior and cognition is a small portion of how stress can affect people’s lives throughout life span. More research need to be done in order to show how stress affects people lives and to what extent, and ways to reverse the stress’s negative outcome.


American Psychological Association. (2010) Survey Raises Concern about Health Impact of Stress on Children and Families. Retrieve from:

August, Kristin J., Rook, Karen S., Newsom, & Jason T. (2007) The Joint Effects of Life Stress and Negative Social Exchanges on Emotional Distress. The Journals of Gerontology62. 5 S304-14.

Bluhm, Robyn L, PhD; Williamson, Peter C, MD; Osuch, Elizabeth A, MD; Frewen, Paul A, PhD; Stevens, Todd K, PhD. (2009) Alterations in default network connectivity in posttraumatic stress disorder related to early-life trauma. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience: JPN34. 3 (May 2009): 187-94.

Dohrenwend, Bruce P. (2010) the Role of Adversity and Stress in Psychopathology: Some Evidence and its Implications for Theory and Research. Journal of Health and Social Behavior41. 1 (Mar 2000): 1-19.

Head, Denise; Singh, Tara; Bugg, Julie M. (2012) the Moderating Role of Exercise on Stress-related Effects on the Hippocampus and Memory in Later Adulthood. Neuropsychology26. 2 : 133-143. Retrieve from:

Kradin, & Richard. (2011) THE PLACEBO RESPONSE: an Attachment Strategy that Counteracts the Effects of Stress-related Dysfunction/Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. Retrieve from:

Lupien J. S., McEwen S. B., Gunnar R. M., & Hein C. (2009), the Effects of Stress throughout the Lifespan on the Brain, Behavior and Cognition. Retrieve from:

Roberts, Cliff; Troop, Nicholas; Connan, Frances; Treasure, Janet; Campbell, Iain C. (2007) the Effects of Stress on Body Weight: Biological and Psychological Predictors of Change in BMI. Retrieve from:

Sarah E. J., & Stephen B.B. (2010) Stress and the epigenetic landscape: a link to the pathobiology of human diseases? Retrieve from:

Sawmi, Viren, Tovee, & Martin. (2012) The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men's Judgements of Female Body Size. Retrieve from:

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page