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I’ve been thinking a lot about stress recently. After all, it’s one of the big players that influences brain health.
I thrive on and feel energized by certain types of welcome challenges, and I imagine that’s true for you as well. Yet at times I’ve also felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the relentlessness of unwelcome pressures. Do you relate to that, too?
These days we hear a lot about the effects of stress on our bodies. As you’ve likely experienced, some stress is beneficial, especially when it’s acute and temporary, or when new and exciting, or light and present just enough to help us develop the capacity to accomplish tasks and adapt to changes.
Stress is positive when it stimulates us into action, and helps clarify our focus to be productive or stay safe in the face of danger. We need those benefits, and they help us feel competent.
Short-term stress actually fuels our brains with just the right amount of the hormone cortisol, which in small quantities encourages the growth of cells in the memory region of the brain, the hippocampus. That’s a boost for cognitive function!
So what’s the deal with this phenomenon we call “stress,” and why is it such a popular topic these days?
After all, we know that the typical reaction to acute stress, involving adrenaline, is a natural and self-protective physiological response to a sudden sense of danger or challenge. Typically, such heightened threat passes as quickly as it arrived, and our nervous systems recover balance.
How Stress Can Damage Your Brain, Especially Memory
However, when that natural stress response becomes chronic and unmanaged, we run into trouble. Problematic stress is when the demand for appropriate response exceeds one’s capacity to react in a constructive way. Which wears out the body and sets us up for disease.
Since each person manages stress differently, the amount of stress sensitivity you experience at a given time depends on your ability to navigate the various stressors in your life.
A wide variety of factors can provoke an on-going stress response. Common instigators include poor dietary choices, too little or too much exercise, and insufficient sleep.
Environmental toxins, toxic relationships, and social isolation can also cause serious persistent stress. As can financial insecurity, job-related problems, grief, and health issues…The list goes on.
Research studies confirm that a continuous, heightened response to stressors damages the brain and increases one’s chance of age-related cognitive decline. Hello middle-age memory loss!
The reason is, at least in part, that when there’s no opportunity for the body and brain to recover, which is the case for too many people these days, their cortisol levels increase, which in turn decreases the number of active cells in their storage center for short-term memories, the hippocampus.
As well, at high levels cortisol releases sugar into the blood resulting in insulin resistance, which leads to blood sugar dis-regulation and the build-up of something called amyloid plaques that clog the flow of blood in the brain.
The result is accelerated aging, related shrinkage of brain tissue, and increased risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
What can you do about stress to keep your mind vital as you age?
You have a choice. You can reduce unwanted stressors in your life, or you can learn to navigate that stress more effectively. Ideally, you find a way to do some of both.
In order to expand your capacity to cope with stress, think about your relationship to it. Consider, for example, how you view the particular demands in your life that contribute to your sense of stress.
Do you feel grateful or resentful for the way they grab your attention? Do you view stress as a motivating challenge, or as an energy blocker?
Focus on taking one small, doable step to address whichever aspect of your experience with stress you’d most like to change. For instance, if you’re feeling agitated and anxious, can you use that energy to take action and thus reduce the effect of the stress?
Alternatively, if your response to stress dampens your energy and mood, can you use light physical movement – such as walking, massage, or breathing exercises, to bring your energy back up and lessen the negative effects of the stress?
According to brain experts, we can begin to build greater stress management capacity by scheduling one or more simple, beneficial practices into our day and/or week. Such as:
1) Set aside 15 minutes of “me-time” for yourself, ideally every day.
If daily isn’t possible, start with once a week, then add a second day per week. Do something you enjoy that is also restful. The idea is to allow your reaction to stress to subside. Read a good book, knit a hat, quilt a pillow, paint a picture, or immerse yourself in some other activity that relaxes you.
2) Develop a simple mindfulness/stillness practice.
Start with 2 minutes per day and build up. You could listen to your favorite music for 2-10 ten minutes with your eyes closed. Or sit in quiet. Or, sit still where you can hear birds singing outside your window. You could do breathing exercises that both calm your nervous system and feed oxygen to your brain.
3) Once each week, do some activity that you love.
Go dancing, hiking with a friend (my go-to), exchange humor and laughter (the more the better!) with others, or whatever else would bring you joy that you could look forward to and count on.
Consistency is what matters in terms of brain benefit. So start with one or two steps that would be easy and enjoyable to incorporate into your life with regularity, even with if done imperfectly. Forget perfection!
Finally, remember that it takes time and support to re-program patterns of thinking and reacting. If you’d like to explore your options for finding support around managing stress, contact me for a free consult. I’d be happy to talk with you!
Read about boosting your brain health with the power of foods (There’s So Much You Can Do For Your Brain!) and exercise (Fitness Fuels Your Brain). In my next brain-related post, I’ll focus on the multi-faceted magic of dancing.
Sources: Dr. Heidi Hannah; Dr. Mark Hyman; Dr. Tom O’Bryan; GreenMedInfo.com; Pedram Shojai