Brain Health and Stress Management

Stress ManagementCreative Commons License I started a series a couple of weeks ago on building a healthy brain.  I set out to address five things that we can do to build a healthy brain and to proactively stave off Alzheimer’s and other cognitive-related conditions.  The five components for brain health that I am addressing are:

Taking up where I left off in the list, let’s look at stress management.  First of all, what does stress management have to do with a healthy brain?  It’s fairly easy to make the connection between healthy eating, mental stimulation and a healthy brain.  The effects of exercise may not be so intuitively discerned, but according to some doctors and researchers, it is considered more potent than medication in the prevention of mental issues, literally cutting the risks of dementia in half (wanna go for a walk, anyone?)!  As with exercise, the relationship between stress management and mental health is not intuitive.  Nevertheless, research reveals that “accumulated stress is the greatest cause of age-related mental and physical decline.”1  How?  “Stress causes a release of a hormone, cortisol.  Over time, it can destroy brain cells and suppress the growth of new ones, actually shrinking your brain.  Researchers compared cortisol levels with memory decline.  Those with the largest levels of cortisol had a smaller hippocampus (memory region of the brain)—about 14% smaller!  One woman with high cortisol lost about 60% of her total brain volume within 5 years.”2

Note the word accumulated in the quote.  A little stress (cortisol) is good. It keeps us on our toes. It helps us meet our deadlines. It is present in a strenuous exercise session.  It is essential in a fight or flight situation. The “art,” I suppose, is learning how to use cortisol for all its worth (to meet those deadlines, to finish those workout sessions, and to fight or flee with agility when necessary), but when the moment has passed, to return to a state of calm, cool and collected-ness.  But HOW to do that?

I don’t profess to have mastered the art of living stress-free, but I have learned a few “secrets” along the way.  The following list—some “values” and some “actions”—have helped me, even in the most severe of stressful life situations.

  • Faith – I know that there is Someone much bigger and smarter than me Who is in control.  Even when “bad things” come my way (circumstances that cause stress), knowing that my heavenly Father is aware and that He cares is a stabilizing force in my life.  Further, knowing that He even orchestrates circumstances for His grand scheme gives purpose to the most severe kind of stress.  Thus, though I may experience pain or grief, I am not destroyed by it.
  • The Word of God – I know that this is so closely related to my comments above, but I still must mention it.  It is from the Bible that I get my world and life views (see #1), and so it is through regular, consistent reading of the Bible that I am able to maintain a sense of peace (the opposite of stress) when “stuff happens.”  I must emphasize that this is effective because I read the Word on a regular basis; it is part of my lifestyle.  If I waited till I was in the middle of a stressful situation, it would not have near the same effect.  I know from experience that, when stressed, I have a hard time concentrating.  So the key for me is to build a foundation in the Word of God to fortify me when stress comes.  The Word of God gives me “deep roots” and a “strong foundation.”
  • Prayer – Again, this is related to the first two items above, but it still must be mentioned in a category all its own.  Faith and the Word of God are where I get my world/life view; prayer is [one of] my response to that world view.  Prayer is me talking to the God Who is in control.  As I talk to Him, I don’t only release some of the pent-up stress that has accumulated due to the “stuff that happens,” but my thinking calibrates to become more like His.  And therein lies peace!  When I see from His perspective (the Grand Scheme), even to a small degree, it shifts my thinking in such a way that the stress is reduced.  “Do not be anxious [stressed] about anything, but in everything, by prayer…present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…”
  • Transparency – This point is somewhat related to the final post in this series on having a social network, but it must be mentioned in relation to dealing with stress, too.  We are not meant to be alone.  At all!  Being “in community” is a stress-reducer all by itself.  In times of serious stress (those life-altering situations), being in community and being transparent with your community is a game-changer; it is the difference between going under, so to speak, and rising above the circumstances.  There are lots of scripture, as well as lot of science, to back this up, but I am going to share a personal example.  During a very high-stress situation in my life, I spent months trying to navigate the situation by myself (that’s a LOT of cortisol, people!).  When I was near the “going under” point, I finally opened up and shared my burden with others.  The relief was IMMEDIATE!  I am not exaggerating.  It was as if the heavy burden that I was carrying was suddenly divided up amongst the people that I shared with.  Did my circumstances change?  Not at all.  Did the stress level change?  Significantly!

The above list is what I would consider foundational to life in general, and to dealing with stress in particular.  The following two items are on the more “practical” side of the spectrum—things you can do in the midst of stressful situation to alleviate it and thus prevent the accumulation of stress in your physical body.

  • Aerobic Exercise – I know I write about exercise a lot, but as I said once, “If there is a panacea, exercise is it.” It is a FACT that exercise helps alleviate stress.  Oddly, exercise itself is a type of stress as it calls on your body to increase its oxygen intake, it puts a greater demand on your muscles and it can tax you mentally.  All these things cause a release of cortisol.  HOWEVER, “regular exercise training will decrease this effect, causing the body to have a better response to stress and require less cortisol release.”3  In other words, your body adapts to stress through exercise; you’re better equipped to respond to it in a balanced way.  But besides the long-term effects that regular exercise has on stress, I find that when I am feeling stressed, I can go for a run or a very brisk walk and somehow the stressful situation “looks different” when I am through.  This is due, in part, to the “feel good” endorphins, in part to just getting outside (which in itself is therapeutic), and in part to “getting away from” the situation.   Whatever the scientific explanation, the fact is, I know it works.  And in the context of this post, being less stressed is not just about feeling better, it is about protecting your brain from shrinkage and letting you down in the future.  So practice some kind of aerobic exercise regularly in order to develop a healthy, long-term response to stress, but also use exercise as a treatment for stress in the moment.
  • Deep Breathing – This is a relatively new concept for me, but again, there is science to back up the positive effect of deep breathing.  When you feel stress in a situation, your breath, adrenalin, cortisol and blood pressure all react accordingly.  There’s not much you can do about your adrenalin, your cortisol or your blood pressure in such cases, but you can control your breathing.  So, in a way, the point of deep breathing is to “trick” your body into thinking everything is fine.  Supposedly, after a bit of deep breathing (the way you breathe when you are in a relaxed state), your adrenalin, cortisol and blood pressure will follow suit.  I tried this once when I was about to make a speech in an emotionally stressful situation (at a funeral).  I found it to be effective, and I try to practice deep breathing on a regular basis—usually while driving or falling asleep at night.  You can read a “how to” about Stress Relief Breathing at this link.

Do you have any stress management tips to share?  I would love to hear them.  Did you know there was a link between your stress level and the health of your brain?  I would like to know that, too.  I’m curious as to the relevance of this blog to my readers.  As always, it’s a joy to hear from you.

1Brain Power: Improve Your Mind As You Age, Michael Gelb and Kelly Howell

2100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s, Jean Carper

3 Exercise and Cortisol Levels,” Sara Mahoney

Photo compliments of Alan Cleaver via Compfight

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