Head Off Chronic Stress to Preserve a Healthy Brain

Learning effective strategies to help you cope with the pressures of life can protect you from depression, cognitive decline, and more.

Chronic stress is a toxin that damages both body and brain. Long-term exposure to the pressure, anxiety, and repeated fight-or-flight responses linked to stress has been shown to play a role in the development of physical ailments such as stroke, cardiovascular problems, asthma, immune suppression, inflammation, diabetes and rising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol.

Perhaps more importantly, stress is devastating for the brain, which precipitates the stress response. Long-term stress has been linked to depression, impaired memory, confusion, poor concentration, greater risk for dementia, and the promotion of a harmful cycle that perpetuates the stress response. Recent research suggests that chronic stress may actually change the structure of the brain in harmful ways.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

In addition to changing thinking patterns that may contribute to stress, Dr. Pasinski suggests adopting proven lifestyle strategies to fight the effects of stress, such as:

  • Getting regular exercise. Exercise boosts the circulation of oxygen and nutri-ent-rich blood to brain tissue, helps reduce levels of cortisol, and increases levels of natural pain- and stress-reducers called endorphins. Exercise also boosts the production of growth factors that promote new brain cells and fortify existing neurons and their connections.
  • Meditating and using relaxation techniques. Meditation strengthens mental control and focus, and reduces stress. MGH researchers have found that regular use of relaxation techniques can also change gene expression in ways that can help protect against stress-related harm, such as inflammation and cell death.
  • Sharing your concerns with others. Confiding in others helps provide new perspective, reduce levels of stress hormones, and improve mood by increasing production of the pro-social hormone oxytocin.
  • Managing your overall health. Protect yourself from the negative impact of stress by staying healthy through regular medical checkups, following your doctor’s recom-mendations, watching your weight, and consuming a healthy, low-calorie diet that does not include large amounts of caffeine and other stimulants.
  • Getting plenty of sleep. Practice good sleep hygiene to improve your sleep quality (e.g. keep a regular sleep routine, limit daytime napping, avoid bright light and stimulating ac-tivities in the hour before bedtime, skip stimulants and alcohol close to bedtime). A good night’s rest helps reduce levels of stress hormones, improve mood, facilitate brain repair, and promote memory consolidation, among other benefits.

“The good news is that it’s possible to avoid many of these stress-related health consequences by learning ways to respond to stressful situations with more balanced and rational thinking,” says Marie Pasinski, MD, a neurologist at the MGH Center for Brain Health and author of “Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You,” a bestselling book on brain health. “Along with common-sense lifestyle changes [see What You Can Do], these measures can help you stay healthy in today’s high-pressure world.”

Distorted Thoughts

Much stress is self-inflicted through distorted thought patterns that, among other characteristics, focus on the negative aspects of situations, diminish our confidence in our ability to control events, and draw conclusions that are defeatist and unnecessarily self-critical. Making an effort to challenge destructive thought patterns whenever they occur can help you lower your stress level over time. The list below contains examples of stress-inducing ways of thinking, along with suggestions for countering them:

  • Discouraging self-talk: Having unrealistic expectations of yourself, criticizing yourself and telling yourself you can’t succeed. Suggestion: Avoid self-talk that focuses on your fears and shortcomings. Instead, adopt an internal dialogue in which you encourage yourself and emphasize your strengths and past successes.
  • Personalizing: Wrongly assuming that events beyond your control involve you or that you are somehow responsible for them. Suggestion: Cultivate a sense of perspective. Accept that you cannot control every situation, and absolve yourself of unwarranted blame. Ask yourself how you would view a friend in the same situation.
  • Negativity: Treating positive events as sheer luck, and negative events as normal can lead you to expect the worst during stressful situations, as can dwelling on the negative aspects of events and ignoring their positive aspects. Suggestion: Try to see negative events as challenges, temporary setbacks or learning experiences, and positive events as proof that good outcomes are likely in the future. Look for positive aspects of stressful situations.
  • Helplessness: Feeling that you can do nothing to affect a problem. Suggestion: As much as possible, prepare yourself in advance for stressful situations. Then, instead of automatically giving up, make an effort to examine your options and look for ways to change the situation.
  • All-or-nothing thinking: Avoid thinking in extremes and generalizing from a single event, such as concluding that you’re a social failure because you forgot a guest’s name while making introductions. Suggestion: Instead of viewing events in black or white—pass or fail—accept that life usually proceeds in shades of gray. No one event determines your worth or success.
  • Catastrophizing: Putting the greatest possible negative “spin” on events before their outcome is determined. Suggestion: When you find yourself developing upsetting negative “what if” scenarios, remind yourself that such anxiety-provoking thoughts are pointless because the outcome is unknown. Instead, focus on dealing with the situation as it is now.

“Take charge of your thoughts by exchanging stressful ways of thinking for more resilient approaches,” Dr. Pasinski advises. “View your brain as an instrument that you can master.”

Brain Changes

Changing your thinking patterns may help you avoid one newly discovered consequence of long-term stress—structural changes and abnormal activity within the brain. A paper published online in the January 2016 issue of Current Opinion in Psychiatry reviewed ani-mal and human studies to determine how chronic stress, fear, and anxiety impact the brain’s neurocircuitry.

The review suggests that in long-term stress, emotional reactions overwhelm the functioning of rational and critical thought. Chronic stress becomes associated with over-activity of the amygdala (a brain region involved in emotional responses that triggers the stress re-sponse) and structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus (a key learning and memory region of the brain) and the prefrontal cortex (a region involved in cognitive functions such as planning and decision-making).

“These research findings suggest that repeated exposure to stress can wear away key brain structures involved in cognitive mastery, heightening the stress response and further exacerbating the damage,” Dr. Pasinski says. “The result may explain how chronic stress increases the risk for cognitive decline and dementia.”

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