Reducing the Impact of Stress on the Brain
By Sherrie All, Ph.D.
As you learned the other day, prolonged stress can lower your cognitive reserve both through the toxic effect of stress hormones such as cortisol and by putting a strain on your cardiovascular system. Today we are going to focus on ways to lower the effects of stress on the brain and thereby protect the valuable cognitive reserve that you have been working so hard to build up.
One of the most powerful abilities of the human brain is its ability to control our bodily functions. We discussed yesterday how our thoughts can trigger a stress response and raise our blood pressure and trigger chemical releases. Scientists have also discovered that the opposite is also true. We also have the ability to lower our blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and the release of stress chemicals through our thoughts and behaviors. Volumes have been written on how to manage and reduce stress, and each person's stress management will be different. However, here are a few general techniques that may be helpful. If you are having a hard time implementing these techniques, however, or if your stress level is particularly high, you may consider talking with a therapist or counselor who can guide you through developing stress management techniques that are more suited to your unique circumstance.
- Exercise: The endorphins released in exercise help us feel happier and can eliminate many of our worries just by providing distraction or a better sense of well-being. Taking a short walk to "clear your head" is a powerful way of lowering your stress level. A moderately vigorous workout also triggers the body to shut down the fight or flight response (SNS) for a while and activate the PNS for recovery, thereby giving a break from stress hormones.
- Self-care: Routine self-care is another important way of reducing stress. This can come in many forms such as reading a pleasurable book, taking a hot bath, drinking a cup of hot tea and sitting quietly, etc. All of these activities activate the PNS and shut down the SNS. Other ways of efficiently engaging the PNS is through regular massage. Fully body massages are great, but even a simple pedicure can provide benefits.
- Relaxed Breathing: When we are anxious we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths. We may think that taking a deep breath will calm us down, but researchers have fond that deep breaths can trigger hyperventilation, which does not have a calming effect and in fact causes anxious feelings. In order to calm down, you should breathe more slowly and take normal breaths but exhale slowly and say the word CALM or RELAX, or any word that you feel is soothing, to yourself very slowly. It is the exhalation that is associated with relaxation. For centuries cultures have developed techniques for achieving relaxed breathing and calm states through meditation, yoga, and prayer.
- Managing our Thoughts: Take a look at your thoughts and see if there are ones that are causing you anxiety or making you sad. Do you find yourself brooding about things you can't change? Take some time to try getting some perspective on your negative thoughts and replace them with a more balanced way of thinking. Is it really the case that if you don't finish that third load of laundry something catastrophic is going to happen? Adjusting how we think can dramatically change our mood.
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