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Six tips to build resilience and prevent brain-damaging stress

Stress symbolThese days, we all live under con­sid­er­able stress — eco­nomic chal­lenges, job demands, fam­ily ten­sions, always-on tech­nol­ogy and the 24-hour news cycle all con­tribute to cease­less worry. While many have learned to sim­ply “live with it,” this ongo­ing stress can, unless prop­erly man­aged, have a seri­ous neg­a­tive impact on our abil­ity to think clearly and make good deci­sions, in the short-term, and even harm our brains in the long-term.

Recent stud­ies show that chronic stress can also lead to depres­sion, and even to a higher risk of cog­ni­tive decline and Alzheimer’s dis­ease symp­toms. Why? Under stress, the brain’s lim­bic sys­tem — respon­si­ble for emo­tions, mem­ory and learn­ing — trig­gers an alarm that acti­vates the fight-or-flight response, increas­ing the pro­duc­tion of adren­a­line (epi­neph­rine) and cor­ti­sol, which work together to speed heart rate, increase metab­o­lism and blood pres­sure, enhance atten­tion, the immune sys­tem and anti-inflammatory response, and lower pain sen­si­tiv­ity — all good things when your very sur­vival is on the line. When the stress­ful sit­u­a­tion is over, the body resets back to normal.

How­ever, under con­stant stress, the body is unable to reset. High adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol lev­els per­sist, poten­tially caus­ing blood sugar imbal­ances and blood pres­sure prob­lems, and whit­tling away at mus­cle tis­sue, bone den­sity, immu­nity and inflam­ma­tory responses. These events block the for­ma­tion of new neural con­nec­tions in the hip­pocam­pus, the part of the brain respon­si­ble for encod­ing new mem­o­ries. When these new con­nec­tions are blocked, the hip­pocam­pus can actu­ally shrink in size, hin­der­ing memory.

Too much stress can almost make us “for­get” how to make changes to reduce that stress, lim­it­ing the men­tal flex­i­bil­ity needed to find alter­na­tive solu­tions and trig­ger­ing gen­eral adap­ta­tion syn­drome (GAS) — bet­ter known as “burnout” — which makes us feel unmo­ti­vated and men­tally exhausted.  This is why, next time you for­get someone’s name at a party, try to not obsess about remem­ber­ing it. Instead, make fun of your DNA (we are all human, aren’t we). The name in ques­tion is then more likely to appear in your mind when you less expect it.

What Can You Do?

Rather than sim­ply liv­ing with stress, learn­ing how to effec­tively mas­ter our stress lev­els and build emo­tional resilience can not only help you feel and per­form bet­ter on a daily basis, but also pro­tect your brain from the long-term dam­ag­ing effects of stress. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Get some exer­cise: Stud­ies show that aer­o­bic exer­cise helps build new neu­rons and con­nec­tions in the brain to coun­ter­act the effects of stress. In fact, a 2012 study found that peo­ple who exer­cised very lit­tle showed greater stress-related atro­phy of the hip­pocam­pus (the part of the brain that stores mem­o­ries) com­pared to those who exer­cised more. Reg­u­lar exer­cise also pro­motes good sleep, reduces depres­sion and boosts self-confidence through the pro­duc­tion of endor­phins, the “feel-good” hormones.
  2. Relax: Eas­ier than it sounds, right? But relax­ation — through med­i­ta­tion, tai chi, yoga, a walk on the beach, or what­ever helps to quiet your mind and make you feel more at ease — can decrease blood pres­sure, res­pi­ra­tion rate, metab­o­lism and mus­cle ten­sion. Med­i­ta­tion, in par­tic­u­lar, is tremen­dously ben­e­fi­cial for man­ag­ing stress and build­ing men­tal resilience. Stud­ies also show that get­ting out into nature can have a pos­i­tive, restora­tive effect on reduc­ing stress and improv­ing cog­ni­tive func­tion. So move your yoga mat out into the yard, or turn off that tread­mill and take a walk in the park. Your brain will thank you for it.
  3. Social­ize: When your plate is run­ning over and stress takes over, it’s easy to let per­sonal con­nec­tions and social oppor­tu­ni­ties fall off the plate first. But ample evi­dence shows that main­tain­ing stim­u­lat­ing social rela­tion­ships is crit­i­cal for both men­tal and phys­i­cal health. Cre­ate a healthy envi­ron­ment, invit­ing friends, fam­ily and even pets to com­bat stress and exer­cise all your brains.
  4. Take con­trol: Stud­ies show a direct cor­re­la­tion between feel­ings of psy­cho­log­i­cal empow­er­ment and stress resiliency. Empow­er­ing your­self with a feel­ing of con­trol over your own sit­u­a­tion can help reduce chronic stress and give you the con­fi­dence to take con­trol over your brain health. Some videogames and apps based on heart rate vari­abil­ity can be a great way to be proac­tive and take con­trol of our stress levels.
  5. Have a laugh: We all know from per­sonal expe­ri­ence that a good laugh can make us feel bet­ter, and this is increas­ingly backed by stud­ies show­ing that laugh­ter can reduce stress and lower the accom­pa­ny­ing cor­ti­sol and adren­a­line lev­els that result. Hav­ing fun with friends is one way to prac­tice to two good brain health habits at once. Even just think­ing about some­thing funny can have a pos­i­tive effect on reduc­ing stress and the dam­age it causes to your brain.
  6. Think pos­i­tive: How you think about what stresses you can actu­ally make a dif­fer­ence. In one study at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, stu­dents were coached into believ­ing that the stress they feel before a test could actu­ally improve per­for­mance on grad­u­ate school entrance exams. Com­pared with stu­dents who were not coached, those stu­dents earned higher scores on both the prac­tice test and the actual exam. Sim­ply chang­ing the way you look at cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, tak­ing stock of the pos­i­tive things in your life and learn­ing to live with grat­i­tude can improve your abil­ity to man­age stress and build brain resilience.

Liv­ing with high lev­els of sus­tained stress can have a pro­found neg­a­tive impact on your psy­cho­log­i­cal and brain health. While often there is lit­tle we can do to change the stress­ful sit­u­a­tion itself, there are many things we can do to alter or man­age our reac­tions to it. Man­ag­ing stress  and mas­ter­ing our own emo­tions through sim­ple lifestyle changes and the use of basic tech­niques that any­one can do can help reduce stress-related dam­age to the brain, improve emo­tional resilience SharpBrainsGuide_3D_compressedand thwart cog­ni­tive decline as we age.

–This is an adapted excerpt from the book “The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age” (April 2013; 284 pages), fea­tured by Kirkus Reviews as “A stim­u­lat­ing, chal­leng­ing resource, full of solid infor­ma­tion and prac­ti­cal tips for improv­ing brain health.”

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