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Six tips to build resilience and prevent brain-damaging stress

These 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.

The Problem

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 built around heart rate vari­abil­i­ty sen­sors 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”, fea­tured by Kirkus Reviews as “A stim­u­lat­ing, chal­leng­ing resource, full of sol­id infor­ma­tion and prac­ti­cal tips for improv­ing brain health.”

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  1. Lorraine says:

    I must be huge­ly stressed, as I could not see TWO dol­phins- I saw a dol­phin and a cow!!!!!

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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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