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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.


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 to con­tribute to our pub­lic edu­ca­tion ini­tia­tive.


Relat­ed blog posts

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

- 30-sec­ond Stress Test

- Stress Man­age­ment Work­shop for Inter­na­tion­al Wom­en’s Day

- Are yoga and med­i­ta­tion good for my brain?

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8 Responses

  1. eJane says:

    WOW! Great arti­cle, excel­lent­ly writ­ten!!! My favorite part is “Stay in the moment” to reduce stress. It is easy to pile on stres­sors when you let things get out of con­trol. By focus­ing on “the moment”, you gain con­trol!

  2. Gkellett says:

    Cheers Jane.
    Yes, it is amaz­ing how some­thing seem­ing­ly so sim­ple as being in the moment can have such pro­found phys­i­o­log­i­cal effects.

  3. Anonymous Generosity says:

    I real­ly enjoyed, and learned from, this arti­cle, espe­cial­ly because the author has a real gift for bring­ing eso­teric terms and ideas down to earth with great sec­tion titles and turns of phrase, such as “Get Kinet­ic” and “stave off stress-induced brain ero­sion”. Love it.

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Greg,

    Excel­lent arti­cle.

    It can be impor­tant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate 2 types of stress man­age­ment inter­ven­tions: a) ongo­ing lifestyle and mind­set options that can con­tribute to low­er stress lev­els to begin with, b) spe­cif­ic “tech­niques” to use in the moment we notice we feel we are get­ting stressed, for exam­ple in the mid­dle of a tough meet­ing.

    Let me ask you: when was the last time you noticed you were get­ting too stressed and how did you react in that pre­cise moment?

  5. Gkellett says:

    Hey there Alvaro,
    Hmmmm.…Last time I found my self get­ting stressed was in the air­port after miss­ing a con­nec­tion. I did a few things as a result…stopped & noticed, took those deep breaths, got out of my head by tak­ing in my sur­round­ings and said to myself “It is what it is.” In fact, let­ting go of one’s resis­tance to real­i­ty would be a good addi­tion to the above. Per­haps you were hint­ing at this with your men­tion of “mind­set options”.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Greg, great exam­ple and sug­ges­tion!

    It is what it is.” is a great start­ing point to decide what makes more sense to do in a giv­en sit­u­a­tion, rather than focus on the “what should have been”.

  7. Senthil says:


    Its won­der­ful arti­cle. So beau­ti­ful­ly explained. Very very usfual to under­stand our var­i­ous prob­lems inter con­nect­ed with these hid­den facts… Thanx a lot for your kind con­tri­bu­tion… please keep it up.. l

    Thanx & Regards,


  8. Gregory says:

    Thanks for the kind words Senthil.

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