Stress management is one of the 4 pillars of brain health. Therefore it is vitally important for us to understand and learn about stress and stress management in order to keep our bodies and brains healthy.
Stress is a normal reaction to the demands of life. But when we're not able to cope well with stress, our mind and body will pay the price.
Stress and Your Brain
According to the book titled "Brain Rules", by John Medina, our brain can safely handle stress that lasts for about 30 seconds. Our brain is simply not designed to handle long term stress. Long term stress damages our brain.
Stress damages virtually every kind of cognition that exists. It damages memory and executive function. It can hurt your motor skills. When you are stressed out over a long period of time it also disrupts your immune response. You get sicker more often. It disrupts your ability to sleep. You get depressed.
When we're stressed, a hormone called cortisol is released. In the short-term, cortisol helps the brain to cope with life-threatening situations. However, if overloaded with it, the brain's neurons end up firing too frequently and they end up dying.
Giving rats daily injections of cortisol for several weeks has been shown to result in the killing off of certain brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory). Stressing the rats daily for the same amount of time had an identical effect. A study where rats were tightly restrained for six hours daily for 21 days, without food or water, resulted in the animals' hippocampus shrinking by 3%.
Without cortisol you would die – but too much of it is not a good thing either. That's why it's critical for us to learn stress management techniques.
Typical stress management and stress relief techniques include:
Physical activity helps in reducing and preventing the effects of stress. Exercise triggers the production of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These chemicals are responsible for what’s called the "runner's high." Researchers at Duke University have shown that exercise (30 minutes per day, three to four days a week, for four months) can relieve anxiety and depression symptoms as effectively as prescription antidepressants.
Just be sure not to overdo it. Overdoing it can actually trigger excess cortisol production! An out of the norm, overly exerted exercise bout can elevate your cortisol levels. However, adhering to a regular, progressive and sustainable exercise program will slowly "teach" your body to produce less cortisol in response to a given workload.
Relaxation techniques help train your mind to become less responsive to stress. Practicing relaxation techniques enables you to maintain calm and peaceful feelings throughout your day.
Relaxation techniques include activities such as:
- Deep breathing
- Tai Chi
- Progressive muscle relaxation
A great online resource I’ve found for delving deeper into relaxation techniques for stress reduction is:
Getting enough sleep
The importance of getting enough sleep can’t be overstated. Sleep and stress are inter-related. Stress makes sleeping difficult and lack of sleep makes us more stressed. It can be a vicious cycle.
Researchers say we should try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. What can you do if you don’t get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep? Try taking a power nap!
Positive outlook and self talk
If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, then your outlook is more likely a pessimistic one. If the thoughts you have are mostly positive, then you're more likely an optimist.
An optimist is someone who practices positive thinking.
The health benefits that positive thinking may provide include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
On the other hand, thinking negatively most of the time, or focusing on things that make you frightened, fearful or angry is called rumination. Studies have shown that those who focus on negative aspects of themselves or on a negative interpretation of life had an increased activity in their amygdala. This results in a flood of destructive neurochemicals being released in the brain.
A great resource on self talk: