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Relaxing for your Brain’s Sake

What stresses you out ?Meditation School Students

What­ever it is, how you respond to it may have more con­se­quences than you think. Let me show you how.

Recap­ping from last months arti­cle (see Stress and Neural Wreck­age: Part of the Brain Plas­tic­ity Puz­zle)…our bod­ies are a com­plex bal­anc­ing act between sys­tems work­ing full time to keep us alive and well. Any change which threat­ens this bal­ance can be referred to as stress. Cor­ti­sol, a key com­po­nent of the stress response, does an excel­lent job of allow­ing us to adapt to most stres­sors which last more than a cou­ple of min­utes. How­ever, hav­ing to endure a high stres­sor for longer than about 30 min­utes to an hour neg­a­tively impacts the brain in var­i­ous ways.

Sus­tained expo­sure to higher than nor­mal lev­els of cor­ti­sol can result in the prun­ing back of the num­ber of brain cell con­nec­tions involved in the for­ma­tion of new mem­o­ries. In addi­tion, by a vari­ety of mech­a­nisms, these con­di­tions can also increase the rate of neu­ronal cell death while decreas­ing the rate of new cell growth. In short, expe­ri­enc­ing exces­sive chronic, long-term stress is bad for the brain.

One of the keys to under­stand­ing the effects of stress and relax­ation is under­stand­ing the auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem. Although some­what reduc­tion­ist, the fol­low­ing break­down will work for our pur­poses here.

A bal­anc­ing act

Each person’s auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem is respon­si­ble for reg­u­lat­ing diges­tion, cir­cu­la­tion, breath­ing and the rest of our uncon­scious phys­i­ol­ogy. There are two sides to this system–the sym­pa­thetic and the parasym­pa­thetic. For simplicity’s sake, we will refer to these two sides as fight/flight and feel/heal respectively.

The sym­pa­thetic or fight/flight side of the auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem is respon­si­ble for going, doing, react­ing and respond­ing to events, both inter­nal and exter­nal; while the parasym­pa­thetic or feel/heal side pro­motes relax­ation, absorp­tion and pro­cess­ing (of both nutri­ents and infor­ma­tion). It may help to visu­al­ize these two com­po­nents as being on oppo­site sides of a see­saw. The more we acti­vate our fight/flight side, the less we access our feel/heal mech­a­nisms and vice versa. Although both sides are equally impor­tant for proper func­tion­ing, it is the feel/heal sys­tems which allow for relax­ation and cor­re­lated drops in cor­ti­sol lev­els after fight/flight acti­va­tion. When fight/flight auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem activ­ity dom­i­nates for too long the result is the “neural wreck­age” men­tioned above. We are used to think­ing of our fight/flight response as being rel­a­tively eas­ily and auto­mat­i­cally engaged. For­tu­nately, it is also pos­si­ble to acti­vate and even “strengthen” the feel/heal side of our auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem via sev­eral rel­a­tively sim­ple practices.

To err is human

The fight/flight sys­tems evolved pri­mar­ily as a means of deal­ing with threats to our imme­di­ate sur­vival. Both for­tu­nately and unfor­tu­nately, this reac­tionary sys­tem seems to be wired to err on the side of over-activation. This is for­tu­nate in that it increases our chances of sur­vival when faced with uncer­tain dangers…i.e. a poten­tially man-eating uniden­ti­fied sil­hou­ette lurk­ing in the night. The unfor­tu­nate side of this mech­a­nism is that in today’s cere­bral, high stim­u­la­tion world, we are often trig­gered by non-life threat­en­ing events such as get­ting caught in slow mov­ing traf­fic or even our own stag­nate wor­ry­ing thoughts about the non-existent past or future.

Stay in the moment

One way to pro­tect from the dam­ag­ing effects of fight/flight over-activation is to min­i­mize its igni­tion in the first place. Engag­ing one’s senses of sight, hear­ing, smell, taste and touch roots us in the present. By drop­ping into the moment we are not only max­i­miz­ing our abil­ity to deal with the given sit­u­a­tion at hand, we are also flood­ing our brains with sen­sory infor­ma­tion, such as the col­ors of a sun­set or the sub­tle feel of a breeze on the cheek. Since our con­scious aware­ness is only able to take and process a finite amount of infor­ma­tion at a time, fully engag­ing our senses lim­its the amount of (often stress gen­er­at­ing) men­tal chat­ter our brains are able to enter­tain. Prac­tic­ing med­i­ta­tion or other activ­i­ties requir­ing sus­tained focused atten­tion (i.e. sports or zen flower arrang­ing) is a good way to sat­u­rate one­self in the present,thereby reduc­ing our ten­dency to over-react and over-think our way into anxiety.

Catch zzzzzzs

Sleep depri­va­tion has been to shown to sen­si­tize the brain regions respon­si­ble for our react­ing to sit­u­a­tions via fight/flight….giving us a hair trig­ger of sorts. Dur­ing sleep cor­ti­sol lev­els drop as feel/heal mech­a­nisms dom­i­nate (with the excep­tion of the brief spurts of rapid eye move­ment). Peo­ple who do not get enough sleep not only get more expo­sure to cor­ti­sol dur­ing the night, but also have higher rest­ing lev­els of this stress hor­mone dur­ing the day. Catch­ing that first wave of fatigue in the evening instead of push­ing through towards that “sec­ond wind” is usu­ally the best way to guar­an­tee get­ting the sleep our brains and bod­ies need.

Breath­ing

The fas­ci­nat­ing thing about breath­ing is that, although it works pre­dom­i­nantly with­out our con­scious aware­ness, it is one of the few parts of our auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem that we can eas­ily exert con­scious con­trol over. In fact, the sim­ple act of pur­pose­fully tak­ing three or more long slow deep breaths has the abil­ity to shift our auto­nomic ner­vous sys­tem away from reac­tive, sym­pa­thetic fight/flight dom­i­nance towards more relaxed parasym­pa­thetic feel/heal activ­ity. This enables the body’s cor­ti­sol lev­els to drop, again pro­tect­ing the brain from pro­longed exposure.

Get kinetic

Break­ing a sweat in the form of exer­cise has mul­ti­ple pos­i­tive effects when it comes to pro­tect­ing the brain from the onslaught of exces­sive stress. First off, exer­cise increases the over­all tone of our parasym­pa­thetic (feel/heal) work­ings. This trans­lates into a bet­ter abil­ity to relax with all the asso­ci­ated ben­e­fits. As pre­vi­ously men­tioned, pro­longed expo­sure to stress­ful sit­u­a­tions can inhibit the brain’s abil­ity to gen­er­ate new neu­rons (neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis). Exer­cise by con­trast has been proven to pro­mote neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis, coun­ter­bal­anc­ing dam­age expe­ri­enced under times of sus­tained “non-relaxation”. In addi­tion, reg­u­lar exer­cise has been shown to enhance healthy sleep, thereby also sup­port­ing the ben­e­fits of sleep dis­cussed above.

I hope you find this brief overview into ways one can stave off stress-induced brain ero­sion use­ful. Next time we will inves­ti­gate how diet can work to improve and sup­port cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. Till then, be calm and take it easy.

Gregory Kellett on stress managementGre­gory Kel­lett has a mas­ters in Cog­ni­tive Neurology/Research Psy­chol­ogy from SFSU and is a researcher at UCSF where he cur­rently inves­ti­gates the psy­chophys­i­ol­ogy of social stress. He wrote this arti­cle for SharpBrains.com to con­tribute to our pub­lic edu­ca­tion initiative.

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Related blog posts

- Stress and Neural Wreck­age: Part of the Brain Plas­tic­ity Puzzle

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- Stress Man­age­ment Work­shop for Inter­na­tional Women’s Day

- Are yoga and med­i­ta­tion good for my brain?

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