When you think of the word stress you can probably easily identify the areas of stress in your daily life - from balancing your family and work, to dealing with finances, to handling family and relationship issues – daily stress is all around us! It is also likely that you can effortlessly identify how stress affects your physical and emotional well-being. You may think of sleep problems, heart disease, and weight gain that are typically associated with stress. But have you considered the effect stress has on your brain?
Recent research has demonstrated that chronic stress creates long-term changes in brain structure and function. A study conducted by Dr. Rajita Sinha at Yale University showed that exposure to chronic stress can reduce brain volume, which can lead to impaired thinking and emotional regulation. Other studies have shown the depletion of brain chemicals and destruction of brain cells when we are chronically stressed.
What's up with your brain when you are stressed? When any kind of stress is experienced the hormone, cortisol, is released. In moderate doses, cortisol can actually be good for your brain. Think of how you feel when you ride a roller coaster or watch a thrilling show. You feel excited, alert, and more alive! Brain cells in your hippocampus, where learning and memory are stored, become more active and the brain's feel good hormone, dopamine, is released. The "stress" of these stimulating activities sharpens your senses and improves your memory.
Conversely, when you are under chronic stress and cortisol is continually being released, the cells in the hippocampus just can't handle the copious amounts of the hormone. The cells become vulnerable to injury and can even die! Production of dopamine is reduced so you are less capable of feeling good and there are changes in the emotional and planning areas of your brain.
Yikes! Stress is bad for your body AND your mind! While it may not be possible to eliminate stress from your life, it is possible to reduce the harmful effects of too much cortisol and train your brain to handle stress more effectively. Lifestyle choices that are good for your brain and can help reduce your cortisol levels include:
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Practicing mindfulness techniques on a daily basis (yoga, prayer, meditation)
- Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
- Drinking enough water
- Getting proper sleep (6-8 hours per night)
- Engaging in nurturing social relationships
- Using laughter and fun as much as possible
- Listening to music that you love
What are some stress management techniques that have worked for you?
Even though your brain is the most important organ in your body, effectively dealing with your daily stress through lifestyle changes can benefit your body and your mind – and they both will thank you for it!