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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.

About SharpBrains

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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