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.

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