In this era of constant sensory input, financial insecurity, work demands and the 24/7 news cycle, almost all of us suffer from constant worry. And despite our ability to adapt to and live with it, all of this stress, unless correctly handled, can have a serious negative impact on our thinking and decision-making abilities. It can even, in the long run, have a permanent and negative impact on our brains.
Studies show that all this stress can also lead to major depression disorder, a higher than average risk of mental deterioration, and symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer ’s disease. This is because when the brain is subjected to constant stress, its limbic system – which is in charge of learning, memory and emotions – triggers the fight-or-flight response. This in turn triggers production of epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. This increases your heart rate, metabolism, and blood pressure, sharpen attention, immunity, and anti-inflammatory response, and lowers your pain sensitivity.
While these are all good things when you’re in a dangerous situation and your survival depends on them, when the body is under constant stress it is unable to reset itself. These responses, over time, prevent the formation of new neural connections in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for encoding new memories). This can actually cause the hippocampus to become smaller, which hampers memory.
There are, however, things you can do to keep the daily stress at bay, and protect your brain from suffering from the effects of the near-constant fight-or-flight response we find ourselves under.
- Exercise. Aerobic exercise helps to make new connections in the brain, and also helps to reduce stress. A study done in 2012 determined that people who got little exercise showed wasting of the hippocampus. Consistent exercise also encourages more restful sleep, can reduce depression, and promotes better self-confidence through the release of endorphins (the “feel-good” hormone).
- Relax. Easier said than done, for sure, but relaxing lowers blood pressure, metabolism, muscle tension, and respiration rate. Do whatever quiets your mind best; meditation, in particular, is wonderful for relieving stress and helping the brain to restore itself. What’s more, studies show that being in nature also helps the brain – so take a walk outside instead of on the treadmill, or bring your yoga mat out into the yard (not in the rain, of course).
- Socialize. We tend, when we become super-busy and have too much on our plate, to let social connections fall to the side. But there is ample evidence to support the theory that maintaining stimulating social relationships helps both physical health and brain health. Get your family and friends together and do an activity that will challenge all your brains (play a game like Scrabble or Trivial Pursuit).
- Take Control. There is a direct connection between mental resiliency and feelings of empowerment. Empowering yourself reduces stress levels and therefore promotes overall brain health. Remember, you cannot control other people; the only thing you can control is yourself. You are the only one who can empower you.
- Laugh. The old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” is more than a mere maxim. Laughter really DOES make you feel better. The stress reduction you feel from having a good laugh (especially with friends, which encompasses two key healthy brain practices) will reduce stress and the damage that it does to the brain. Even just thinking of something funny can have a beneficial effect. So – lighten up!
- Think Positive. How you think about a given situation can actually make a difference, In a Harvard study, one set of students was coached to believe that the stress they felt before an exam would cause beneficial results on the test. Compared to the students that were not coached, those students achieved higher scores both on the practice test and the actual exam. Learning to live with gratitude, taking stock of what’s good in your life, and focusing on the positive can have a beneficial effect on your brain’s health.
- Do Something New. Taking on new challenges and doing new activities creates new neural pathways in the brain, which increases your intelligence. Simply taking a new route to work or trying a new café for your coffee klatch with your friends can have a beneficial effect
- Be Curious. Rather than taking everything at face value, get into the habit of questioning the information you receive every day. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also created the telephone and the radio.
- Eat Healthy. Since our brains consume approximately 20% of all the nutrients and oxygen that we take in, it’s important to replenish it with “the good stuff.” Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and Omega-3 that is found in oily fish, along with plenty of water, is one very important component of keeping your brain healthy.
- Get Enough Sleep. During sleep, our brains process the information we have taken in during the day, as well as regenerate themselves. Think of it as a mini-detox for the brain. The amount of sleep adults need varies, but try to get somewhere in the range of 6-8 hours per night.
There is usually not much we can do to change a stressful situation, but this list is 10 things we can do to manage our reactions to stress. Implementing these simple lifestyle changes (which anyone can do) can help reduce stress-related damage to the brain. It can also improve our emotional resiliency and slow, if not eliminate, cognitive damage as we age.
*Photos courtesy of hubblesite.org