Stress and Play on the Brain

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Stress is a state of mind characterized by restlessness, anxiety, and worry (Greenberg, 2017). Stress has numerous effects on the human brain and the effects are both short and long term. The effects also depend on the magnitude and the type of the stress. On the other hand, play also represents an important role in the development of the human brain, as it involves muscle relaxation, and mood regulation. For this reason, this will attempt to explain the positive and negative effects of stress and play on the human brain from infancy to adulthood using existing psychological theories.

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The study of the relationship between stress and brain development is a subject that captures the attention of many people. People such as Sigmund Freud have incisive literature that explains discursively the impact of stress on the brain (Greenberg, 2017). However, before going into the details, it is important to mention that the term stress is relative in the sense it could be mild or chronic depending on the impact on an individual. In addition, it is worth mentioning that stress affects both the brain and the physical body. In this paper I will try to illustrate the impact of stress on the brain and the physical body.

Sigmund Freud is among the first people to study the impact of stress of on the brain and human health. He examined Anna O, a woman who was suffering from hysterical signs that were related to the heinous sexual harassment scenes she had witnessed in her life (Contrada & Baum, 2012). The exposure to traumatic experiences in her childhood affected her brain and made her uneasy, more anxious, and restless most of the time. While examining her, Freud found out that she was suffering from the effects of traumatic stress because of her exposure to sexual harassment as a child.

Studies in human beings and animals show that stress has immense impact on the brain development especially during infancy. Children feel the strongest impact of stress in relation to adults. This explains the reason children show heightened sensitivity to the things that happen around them than adults do in life (Greenberg, 2017). The changes they show come from the fact that the stress they experience from their environment affects their brain and molds behavior. During infancy, children undergo immense changes in their body structures; as a result, they feel stress no matter how mild it is.

In human beings, adults, and children, stress functions by triggering the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. This leads to the production of glucocorticoids in the adrenals. The effect of the production of steroids in the brain is that expression of their receptors is even across the brain (Contrada & Baum, 2012). As a result, they always act as factors for transcription affecting the expression of genes and other biological factors in a child. Therefore, it is important to minimize a child’s stress because too much stress does not only affect their brain development but it also affects gene expression, which is an important biological process in the development of humans. Therefore, when studying the effects of stress on brain development, the different stages, prenatal, infancy, puberty, adulthood, and old age are critical.

Prenatal Stress

In animal and human studies, early exposure to stress leads to the programming effect on the brain and (HPA) axis. This happens in many ways. The first method of causing stress at the prenatal stage is by exposing expectant mothers to stress. In such a case, more the body reacts by secreting more maternal glucocorticoid that pass through the placenta to the unborn child. This leads to the modification of the brain and increase HPA axis activity in the fetus. Scientific findings argue that Glucocorticoids are important components of the body that help in brain maturation (Contrada & Baum, 2012). However, exposing the fetus to the excess of glucocorticoids affects or impairs their normal brain development. This is the reason it is important to keep pregnant women free from stress for both their health and the development of the babies they carry in their wombs. The stress experienced by a pregnant woman infiltrates into the child though the placenta in the form of Glucocorticoids.

Glucocorticoids are vital for normal brain development and maturation in myriad ways. First, they help with remodeling dendrites and axons. Second, they are important because they help trigger terminal maturation. Third, glucocorticoids play a crucial role in cell survival. For example, when the supply glucocorticoids is insufficient or in excess, the brain cannot go through the developmental processes mentioned above (Levine & Munsch, 2011). It is important for the body to maintain an optimum supply of glucocorticoids to initiate normal brain development and maturation. Increased stress on expectant mother’s produces glucocorticoids in excess, which leads to reduced glucocorticoid receptors and mineralocorticoid receptors in the hippocampus. This affects gene transcription and normal child development.

Postnatal Stress

Postnatal stress is evident among infants. Unlike in the prenatal stage, postnatal stress does not pass through the mother to the children; the infants experience it by themselves. Their bodies react to the stressors individually (Levine & Munsch, 2011). However, because the brains of the infant are still undergoing maturation and development, the impact can be adverse depending its magnitude. Studies indicate that children who spend most of their early days out of home because of a working mother have increased levels of glucocorticoids than those who spend their postnatal days with their biological parents (Levine & Munsch, 2011). Research also indicates that the levels of glucocorticoids are higher in infants who spend the full-day away-from-home day care than those in pre-school. Arguably, therefore, maternal separation among infants increases the levels of glucocorticoids, which affects the normal brain development of a child as discussed above.

The interaction between parents and children also play an important role and influence HPA axis activities. In the first years of a child’s development, the state of HPA system is often labile, but sensitive parenting has the effects of increasing or sustaining it for prolonged spells (Levine & Munsch, 2011). Maternal depression, however, has the tendency of affecting the levels of HPA activity, thus leading to increased production of glucocorticoids which affect the normal development and growth of the brain among infants.

Stress in Adolescence

The adolescence stage is a critical level of human development. It serves as a transitional stage and takes one from childhood into adulthood. During this stage, the bodies of both boys and girls go through robust hormonal and physical changes. For this reason, the HPA axis activity and the levels of glucocorticoids are often higher compared to the childhood stages stated above (Broome & Llewelyn, 2015). As the body changes, the brain also changes among both boys and girls as they are initiated into adulthood. People in this stage are sensitive to stress and stressors. At this stage, the hippocampus is mature, but the amygdala and the frontal cortex are still developing. In human beings, the hippocampus matures by the time an individual is about two to three years old. A comparative study between the development of hippocampus between human beings and rodents indicate adolescents rats continue with the development of the hippocampus, which is not the case with humans (Broome & Llewelyn, 2015). Therefore, during adolescence, stress affects two main parts of the brain, the amygdala, and cortex, which are also vital organs. Studies shows that elevated levels of stress and increased production of glucocorticoids affects the normal development of the cortex and the amygdala.

During this stage people start to experience the longtime effects of early exposure to stress. For example, adolescents who grew up in stressful environments characterized by economic hardships, abusive parents, neglects, and other stressor have heightened baseline glucocorticoids (Broome & Llewelyn, 2015). On the other hand, adolescents who grew up in stress free homes with sufficient supply of basic needs, and caring parents, among other things have reduced levels of baseline glucocorticoids. For this reason, if one takes an adolescent who grew up in stressful environment for PTSD diagnosis, the likelihood that they will show reduced brain volume is often higher than in those who grew with minimal stress (Oxington, 2015). For this reason, one could argue that one of the long-term effects of stress on adolescents’ is reducing the volume of their brain among other things. Other effects of stress on adolescent brains include alteration of the volume of the grey matter and reduction of size or volume of anterior cingulate cortex. For this reason, the most affected region of the brain because of stress during adolescence is often the frontal cortex because it continues to develop at this stage of life.

Stress in Adulthood

In adulthood, the effect of stress produces a U-shaped curve of the relationship between cognitive performance and glucocorticoids levels (Oxington, 2015). At this stage, effects of stress are more pronounced and evident through things such as reduced self-esteem and other things such as elevated basal glucocorticoid. Like in adolescence, adults who grew up in stressful environments begin to continue feeling the long-term impacts of early exposure. Stressed adults mostly test positive when diagnosed for PTSD. Other effects of stress on adults include things such as hyper-activity of HPA axis.

Stress and Physical Development

Other than the effects on the brain mentioned above, stress is also responsible for several physical changes that occur in the human body. The first impact of stress is obesity. Stressed people tend to eat a lot of food, a condition that is normally referred to as stressful overeating. This is because when one is anxious, the stomach reacts by producing more gastric and peptic acids that burn the walls of the stomach hence leading to increased hunger pangs even if one is not hungry (Oxington, 2015). For this reason, they tend to eat more calories that build up in the body leading to overweight and obese bodies. Depending on an individual, stress could also lead to malnutrition and starvation. Some people lack appetite for food when under chronic stress, deprives them essential vitamins and nutrients for healthy living.

Positive impact of Stress

Even though stress is not healthy for brain development, mild stress can push one towards achievement of goals and objectives (Oxington, 2015). For example, when a student is worried about the forthcoming exams, they read their notes and do research in preparation for the exams. Eventually, they find themselves passing the classes because of the anxiety that they had before the exam. People are also driven to success by stressors such as the need to pay bills, the responsibility to fend for the family, and fulfill other financial needs.

Stress Management

Stress management is the art of getting control of the stressors to ensure that it does not lead to chronic levels (Oxington, 2015). People with effective stress management skills come out of stressful situations without getting hurt. Effective stress management entails understanding and manipulating the stressors to one’s own advantage. For example, one of the most effective ways dealing with stressors is avoidance, which refers to keeping away from anything that is likely to cause stress (Oxington, 2015). When one senses that the argument they are having is likely to escalate into a quarrel, they can avoid stress by leaving it. Alternatively, avoid any form of arguments in future life. This helps in ensuring that one protects themselves from fatal outcomes of stress. Another effective stress management skill is confrontation of the problem. This entails one facing and dealing with the stressor such as asking for forgiveness and seeking reconciliation after a fight. Dealing with the problem helps with stopping the recurrence of the stressor.


Like stress, play also represents a crucial role in developing the brain of human beings. However, even though play is healthy for human brain development, too much of it can be destructive in many different ways (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2012). Brain development in human beings depends largely on activities that people do. When children play, they are able to stimulate hormonal process that initiate growth, replication, and differentiation of brain cells hence bringing about important changes not only on the structure of the brain, but also the quality of its function. For this reason, parents should encourage their children to play more in their childhood to make brain development a smooth process.

In children, play is not always about having fun and enjoyment; it is a process that brings about key changes in their ability to relate with the environment, develop their brain, intellect, and body. Studies suggest the predominant method of learning among children through experiment (Hughes, 2010). Children experiment in many ways. During the early stages of life, they mostly rely of their senses of taste, touch, and hearing. For example, between 6 months and 2 years, most children will want to experience their world by touching almost everything that they come across, tasting, and listening to voices around them.

Between 3 and 9 months, the brain has neurons that are never used in a person’s life. For this reason, it is always important that brain gets rid of such neurons to create enough room for the most useful ones (Hughes, 2010). One of the effects of play in the brain of a child between these ages is that it releases such neurons by generating ones that are more useful. Physical movements and excitement by children when playing have the effect of stimulating specific growth hormones in the brain, to release fresh neurons and get rid of useless ones.

At early stage, the brain cells for various sensory activities start developing as the child moves around interacting with different things in their environment. For example, between the first and the fourth month, playing with objects in the hands helps in the development of the sensory nerves and neurons for sight (Hughes, 2010). As these aspects develop in an infant, cells replicate allowing the brain to remove all the neurons that are not required. Constant interactions with an infant helps with the development of the childs memory, as they remember the experiences they have with the caregiver and the different objects of play.

Other than indoor play, a child also needs interactive activities with the outside world. Children learn more from the outside world that help with developing their hearing sensory nerves, motor skills, among other important things in their development. For instance, while playing outside, children are introduced to different sounds and voices. As they hear these voices and try to differentiate them, the brain triggers the development of neurons and nerves used for hearing (Hughes, 2010). In the process, the brain replaces useless neurons with important ones to reinforce the sense of hearing, which is one of the important senses in human life.

Outside play also plays an important role in developing the part of the brain responsible for smelling objects. While playing outside, children interact with different smells in the environment; some of the smells are bad while others are good (Stiles, 2008). This allows the child to differentiate the two smells, the good scents, and the odor. In the process of smelling different things from the outside, the brain develops neurons and nerves for developing a strong sense of smell in the infant. Therefore, it is important for the child to play outside for them to develop the sense of smell.

Between 10 months and 1 year, a child begins to experience different forms of stress and anxiety (Coch, 2010). As discussed in the earlier, stress has an effect of affecting the HPA axis activities, which depending on their levels can affect the brain development in an infant. During this stage, play helps deal with the different types of stress and anxiety, fear, and irritability. This helps in developing the brain structures of a child such as hippocampus, which only develop until when a child is about two to three years of age. Play is important in shaping the development of a child’s brain as a whole.


Stress affects the development of the brain in all stages of life, while constructive play helps develop the brain of human beings starting from the early stages of life to adulthood. Play is not only important for children, but also for adults, and adolescents because it releases them of the negative impacts of stress such as anxiety, fear, and irritability, which have adverse impact on the development of the brain at all stages of human life.


Broome, A., & Llewelyn, S. P. (2015). Health psychology: Process and applications. London: Chapman & Hall.

Coch, D. (2010). Human behavior, learning, and the developing brain: Atypical development. New York: Guilford.

Contrada, R., & Baum, A. (2012). The Handbook of Stress Science: Biology, Psychology, and Health. New York: Springer Pub. Co.

Frost, J. L., Wortham, S. C., & Reifel, R. S. (2012). Play and child development. Boston: Pearson.

Greenberg, M. (2017). The stress-proof brain: Master your emotional response to stress using mindfulness and neuroplasticity.

Hughes, F. P. (2010). Children, play, and development. Los Angeles: Sage.

Levine, L. E., & Munsch, J. (2011). Child development: An active learning approach. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.

Oxington, K. V. (2015). Psychology of stress. New York: Nova Biomedical Books.

Stiles, J. (2008). The fundamentals of brain development: Integrating nature and nurture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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Stress and Play on the Brain. (2019, Aug 16). Retrieved January 28, 2023 , from

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