Stress Management Can Protect Your Brain
Typically, related to cognitive problems and a higher risk of developing Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
It is not uncommon to feel forgetful and disorganised when stressed but over a long period of time stress may change your brain which can affect memory.
Studies in both animals and animals show clearly that stress can affect brain function. Scientists have seen changes in how the brain processes information during a period of real-life and manufactured stress. (In the latter, researchers challenge participants to perform difficult tasks such as counting backwards in 13s whilst being graded on performance).
Either type of stress interferes with cognition, memory, and attention. – Dr Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer, McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School.
Stress not only affects memory as well as other brain functions like moods and anxiety but also promotes inflammation which adversely affects heart health, says Jill Goldstein, professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School. Thus, stress has associations with chronic diseases of the brain and heart. The effects are different for men and women.
Stress And The Brain
To understand why stress affects our brain, it is important to understand how the brain works. The brain is not a single unit, but a group of different parts that each performs different tasks, says Dr Ressler.
Researchers believe that when a part of your brain is engaged other parts may not have much energy to performs their own vital tasks. For example; If you are in a dangerous situation, the Amygdala – the part that governs survival instincts ‚Äì may take over leaving the parts of your brain that store memories and perform high order tasks with less ability to perform their role. The logic behind this is that the brain has switched into survival mode thus is shutting down non-essential resources (including memory). Therefore, after a traumatic event or prolonged high stress, you may become more forgetful.
The effects of stress on the brain and body may differ depending on when it occurs during a person’s life, says Goldstein. Gonadal hormones and are secreted in large amounts during fetal development, puberty, and pregnancy and depleted during menopause and may play a role in how stress affects individuals.
‚ÄúFor example; Reductions in the Gonadal hormone Estradiol during menopausal transition may change how the brain reacts to stress.‚Äù Goldstein.
Protecting Yourself From Damaging Stress
To better cope with stress, consider factors that can minimise stress. Here are some tips that can help you better manage stress levels and hopefully prevent some of the damaging effects it can have on the brain:
Establish Some Control
If stress is not predictable, focus on the things that are. Having a routine is not only good for development but also for health. Predictability combats stress, says Dr Ressler.
Stress can result in poor sleep which, in turn, can make stress even worse. Sleep deprivation makes sections of the brain that handle high order functions less efficient. Healthy sleep habits can help the brain function better. This includes good sleep hygiene and going to bed/waking up at the same time, avoiding caffeine, removing screens, and creating a relaxing bedroom atmosphere free from distraction.
Have strategies in place to manage your workload. For example, create a daily ‚Äòto do‚Äô list of tasks you need to accomplish. This way, you won’t feel so overwhelmed. Creating lists also give you clear direction from start to finish. ‚ÄúLaying tasks out like this helps reduce feelings of bombardment, says Dr Ressler.
If You Need It, Get Help
Reaching out can help you build resilience and better coping strategies, which ultimately protect the health of your brain. Early intervention may reduce disability caused by stress-related complications in later life.
Change Your Attitude
‚ÄúA life without stress is not only impossible but would also be incredibly uninteresting ‚Äì in fact, a certain degree of stress is vital for growth,‚Äù says Ressler. Rather than aiming for zero stress, strive for healthy responses to stress.
Long-Term Brain Changes
There is evidence that chronic or persistent stress can rewire your brain, says Ressler. Scientists have learned that animals under prolonged stress have less activity in areas of the brain that control high order tasks; for example, the Prefrontal Cortex and more activity in areas of the brain that focus on survival ‚Äì the Amygdala. To simplify; if you were to exercise one part of your body it would become stronger than the non-exercised parts which inevitably would become weaker. This is what appears to happen in the brain when under continuous stress.
These changes, in some circumstances, can be revered according to Ressler. Whilst stressful childhood experiences seem to take more of a toll on the developing brain, research has found that many who demonstrate resilience in the face of previous trauma have developed new brain mechanisms to compensate. It is thought that these new pathways aid in recovery from stress-related brain changes that were formed in early life.
Is stress Created Equal?
While the effects on the brain are well documented, it is less clear on what type of stress is more damaging and therefore could lead to health problems in later life.
Do brain problems occur when under a small amount of stress or is it only long-term stress that affects the brain?
It is a tough question because stress is a broad term used to describe many things. The stress you experience before an exam is different from the stress of being involved in a car accident. Certainly, more stress is likely worse, and long-term even more so, says Ressler.
There are further factors that make stress more harmful:
Research on animals shows that they could anticipate a stressor if receiving a shock after a light was turned on ‚Äì were less stressed than those receiving shocks at random. The same can be applied to humans. If a person anticipates stress it is less damaging than random stress.
No Time Limit On Stress
If you are stressed about work or an exam, the stress you experience has an endpoint. If the stress has no endpoint ‚Äì for example, chronically stressed about finances‚it may be more challenging to cope with.
Lack Of Support
Feeling supported during periods of stress enables a person to whether it more successfully than those who do not.
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