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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

- 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:

    Hi,

    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,

    Senthil

  8. Gregory says:

    Thanks for the kind words Senthil.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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