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Stress management: exercise, relax, socialize, empower, biofeedback

iProlonged exposure to high levels of stress can damage the brain. As part of a brain-healthy life-style it is essential to manage stress efficiently.

It is clear that our society has changed more rapidly than our genes have. Today, instead of being faced with physically and immediately life-threatening crises that demand instant action, we more regularly deal with events and illnesses that gnaw away at us slowly without any stress release.

In his book, Why Zebras don’t have Ulcers, Dr. Sapolsky points out that humans are unique in that they are the only mammals who can get stressed from their own thoughts. When humans are stressed, for any reason, they have the same kind of stress reaction that, for example, a zebra would when it tries to escape from the clutches of a lion. However, in trying to save its life by running away, the zebra essentially uses up its stress hormones to fuel its escape. Humans, on the other hand, usually just keep muddling along and let the stress build up over long periods of time.

Overall, stress limits mental flexibility and one’s ability to see alternative solutions. As such, it can prevent us from adapting to, and succeeding in, new circumstances. It can also lead to various cardiac and immune problems. Although stress is an unavoidable consequence of modern life, when work stress becomes too much, it can lead to burnout.

Prolonged exposure to adrenal steroid hormones like cortisol, which is released into the blood stream when we are stressed, can damage the brain and block the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, the key actor in encoding new memories in the brain. Chronic stress leads to cell death and hampers our ability to make changes and be creative enough to think of possible changes we could make to reduce the stress.

General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) describes the long-term, nasty kind of stress that does not go away. This is the kind of stress that paralyzes someone into inaction. The common reaction to this type of stress is to think about a problem and worry about it without doing anything about it. This is the kind of stress that kills neurons, destroys immune and cardiovascular systems, and makes a person anxious, irritable, and unable to sleep.

What can you do once you have realized that you are stressed? As you can see in Table 3, the best defenses against chronic stress are physical exercise, relaxation, self-empowerment, and cultivating social networks. Biofeedback has also been mentioned as useful in stress reduction. As an example, in 1998, a study showed that self-management programs using techniques designed to eliminate negative thought loops and promote positive emotional states can successfully decrease cortisol levels (McCraty and colleagues, 1998).

How to manage stress?

  • Exercise:  Exercise can reduce the experience of stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Relax:  Relaxation, whether through meditation, tai chi, yoga or taking a walk by the beach, lowers blood pressure, slows respiration and metabolism and releases muscle tension.
  • Socialize:  Cultivating social networks of friends, family and even pets can help foster trust, support and also relaxation.
  • Empower yourself:  Finding ways to empower oneself can be a defense against chronic stress since self-confidence and taking control of one’s environment helps to resolve the stress response.
  • Use biofeedback programs:  Biofeedback program (see Chapter 3) that generate real-time information on stress levels can provide a unique opportunity to learn effective techniques for reducing stress levels.

A few solutions to deal with chronic stress. Chronic stress can damage the brain and thus impair brain functions.

Is stress always bad?

There is such thing as “positive” stress. This stress is often experienced as butterflies in the stomach or sweaty palms felt before a big athletic game, artistic performance or speech. The same stress may also surface at work before a presentation or important phone call or meeting. This “positive” stress may boost performance as cortisol usually combines with adrenaline in such circumstances. However, this kind of stress is short lived. The adrenaline is evident for a period of time and then it gets essentially used up as the goal is accomplished. And, once the goal is accomplished, there is typically time to rest and recover while basking in the glow of having completed the task.

Keep learning by reading more articles in the Resources section, and also please consider joining our free monthly Brain Fitness eNewsletter

This new online resource is based on the content from the book The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (May 2009, $19.95), by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg.