Is stress a neurocognitive disorder?

No, stress is not a neurocognitive disorder, but it can feel like one. Stress does wreak havoc on one’s brain, but the effects are not severe enough to cause the issues seen in neurocognitive disorders or neurological disorders, and the effects can, and often do, reverse when the stress ends. Stress cannot cause lesions, brain tumors and cannot do enough damage to any one brain region to cause it to malfunction to the degree that neurocognitive disorders do. Stress does, however, cause serious problems discussed elsewhere, is highly implicated in mood and anxiety disorders, and it can feel like one is very ill. Stress can cause pain, nausea, headache and lack of sleep. Relentless stress makes people miserable and people often have adapted to their own stress levels and do not know they are stressed.

This is not to say that stress is not dangerous–it is, and prolonged stress, especially in children, is linked to many adult psychiatric and medical problems. Stress damages neurons (brain cells) primarily in the part of your brain that makes memories (the hippocampus)–the part that is damaged early in Alzheimer’s Disease and in other neurocognitive disorders. Stress also causes neuro-inflammation.  We want to encourage the reader to learn as many of the sources of his or her stress as possible, and work to reverse them.

Many people experiencing neurocognitive disorders often go through a period of having a healthcare professional tell them that “it is just stress,” and to “go home and relax.” This can occur when the  medical professional is diagnosing by exclusion; that is, diagnosing by NOT finding what they expect to find, which usually entails not looking further. This is medically dangerous, since many disorders do not have sensitive enough tests, and the physician may not choose the right test. Sometimes the medical problem does have sensitive tests which are not being used due to personal bias of the physician or health-care professional. In these cases, what must happen is that the medical professional must use the correct tests. In many rare and controversial diagnosis, such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, Fibromyalgia, etc., there are not many tests which help the physician make a definitive diagnosis, which is why some physicians will not attempt to diagnose these disorders.

You can help yourself feel better by continual stress management, but you will not recover from these disorders with stress management. Also, higher stress levels are nearly always part of any medical disorder or problem, so if one has a chronic medical problem (such as diabetes), then the person will have chronic stress just from having that disorder.

Remember that none of these disorders, even in their worst severity, will cause a full-blown neurocognitive disorder such as CFS/ME. There are some identifiers for good diagnosis of CFS/ME, and we encourage you the reader to consult a  medical professional who can at least give you an accurate diagnosis.

To make matters worse for neurocognitive patients, neuropsychological tests are not very sensitive to mild neurocognitive disorders. This is true of a great many neurocognitive disorders, which is a significant area of research right now. One reason for “passing” a neuropsychological exam is compensation. The human brain compensates, or uses an alternate brain region to perform the function of the damaged region. Currently, most people who have the early stages of a neurocognitive disorder will appear “normal” on these tests when they are, in fact, ill. This fact has been noted by many neuropsychologists over the years and is not a recent finding. One current research challenge is therefore to develop sensitive enough tests to detect neurocognitive disorders when they start–very early on–so that they can be either reversed or halted, but the tendency of the brain to compensate is making progress in these tests difficult.

Another little-known fact about neuropsychological testing is that no two people produce the same test score profile. This is because everyone’s brain functions slightly differently, the damage is different between people, and other effects are present. A term, the Dysexecutive Syndrome, was coined several decades ago to describe people who were known to have neurocognitive problems, but their particular damage could not be pinned down and they “passed” all the tests. Due to the brain’s vast inter-connectivity, the problem can be nearly anywhere but will mostly show up in the executive functions (memory, attention, planning, set-shifting, multitasking, spatial tasks, etc.) including emotion, hence, the term.

The take-home message here is that you may need to see a medical professional who is really attempting to help you sort out whether you have a stress-related medical problem, or a medical problem from another source that is being exacerbated by stress. For instance, if you have migraine syndrome, many sources of stress will trigger and maintain symptoms, but the migraine syndrome is not CAUSED by stress*. It is not a stress-related disease. Think for a moment about how you feel when you try to work with bronchitis, the flu or even a cold–you are much slower, make multiple errors you do not normally make, and you end up being ill longer because you tried to work. When you reflect on these medical problems, and how they can be made worse by stress, your understanding will increase.

 *Migraine has a long, sordid history. It was believed to be just a manifestation of tension headaches, and therefore, caused by stress. It took solid clinical research in the past 20 years to sort this out. We now know that migraine has several forms, and is genetically transmitted. It has been “upgraded” to a full neurological disorder.