A growing body of research says stress may play a major role in Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a progressive brain disorder caused by the deterioration of nerves in your substantia nigra — an area of the brain that helps regulate movement.

As these cells become damaged and lose function, your ability to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine in that part of the brain becomes impaired. With less dopamine activity, muscle tone and movement become impaired, resulting in the hallmark symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

The American Association of Neurological Surgeons states that PD develops in people when there is an 80% or greater loss of dopamine-producing cells.

While the exact causes of Parkinson’s disease are unknown, trauma may increase your chances of developing PD later in life.

Emotional trauma may increase your chances of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Trauma is a form of stress brought on by an experience of psychological overwhelm. It’s commonly associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition featuring symptoms of avoidance, fear, and re-experiencing.

According to research from 2017, living with PTSD may increase your chances of developing PD later in life.

A 2022 cohort study of more than 8,000 people found those living with PTSD had a 1.48-fold risk of Parkinson’s disease compared to people not living with PTSD.

Early life stress and Parkinson’s disease

Trauma isn’t the only form of stress that may influence Parkinson’s disease. Situations of stress exposure during early childhood development may also contribute to long-term PD risk.

A 2018 review into the pathology of PD found early life stress could affect how your brain develops, increasing your vulnerability to other factors linked to PD, like genetic variants and oxidative stress from environmental toxins.

Examples of early life stress included:

  • prenatal maternal stress
  • early postnatal maternal separation
  • early postnatal stress
  • early social isolation

Does stress aggravate Parkinson’s?

What initiates nerve damage in PD remains a mystery, but stress appears to be an important underlying factor in disease development as well as symptom severity.

Stress can increase your chances of developing Parkinson’s disease by causing inflammation and premature cellular death within the substantia nigra.

A 2021 survey of 5,000 people found stress worsened both non-motor and motor symptoms associated with Parkinson’s disease, and that people living with PD reported higher levels of stress compared to those not living with PD.

The survey, along with a 2020 review, found people were able to improve some symptoms of Parkinson’s disease by managing stress through the practice of mindfulness.

Not everyone develops Parkinson’s disease at the same rate. Symptoms can start subtly, and may include:

  • speaking softly
  • constipation
  • small or cramped handwriting
  • restless legs
  • loss of smell
  • trouble sleeping
  • depression
  • anxiety

Movement symptoms become more obvious as PD progresses. Classic symptoms include:

  • involuntary muscle tremors
  • limb stiffness
  • slow movement
  • poor balance
  • hunched walk with small, quick steps
  • stiff facial expression
  • difficultly speaking, chewing, or swallowing
  • cognitive changes

It’s unclear why Parkinson’s disease affects some people and not others, but the primary risk factor appears to be age. The majority of people develop PD after the age of 60.

Other factors that may increase your chances of developing PD include:

  • being male
  • family history of PD
  • chronic stomach upset
  • exposure to pesticides, industrial oils, or metals
  • a history of general anesthesia
  • traumatic brain injury

Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative brain disorder that primarily affects your movement. While the exact causes of Parkinson’s are unknown, emotional trauma appears to be an important underlying factor.

Trauma and extreme stress can speed up damage to the nerves in the area of the brain responsible for movement. It may also make you more vulnerable to the effects of genetic variations or chemical exposures that contribute to PD.

Experiencing early life stress, trauma, or high stress levels doesn’t mean you’ll develop Parkinson’s disease. It only increases your risk of PD.

The exact causes of PD are unknown. If you’re concerned about your independent risk factors, you can speak with a trained representative by calling the Parkinson’s Foundation Helpline at 1-800-473-4636.