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Stress: 'Don't Fry Your Brain!'

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There it is hanging over us. That deadline, that task that we need to accomplish. We arrive early to work with that red light illuminated on our phone, an inundated inbox, and a calendar brimming with meetings. All of us every day experience a tremendous amount of stress in our lives not only at work but in our personal lives too. Fortunately, in this world where yoga and meditation centers are as ubiquitous as Dunkin Donut shops there are a plethora of resources to help us all manage our stress. Mindfulness and well-being programs are popping up at workplaces helping employees cope with the stresses of life and discover the immense joy that can be found in living in the present moment.

Corporate assembly halls and conference rooms at companies such as Google are teeming with employees seeking relief from the mounting stress that is so prevalent in our fast-paced and high-tech workforce. I was recently fortunate enough to attend such a transformative event at a Fortune 100 company. It featured productivity expert and founder of My Orange Villa, LLC, Kirsi Paalanen. Her presentation, "Brain Drain: How to Fight Back Stress and Fatigue," carried a simple yet deeply profound message -- "Don't fry your brain!" A powerful message Kirsi received from her father not long after she collapsed from the stresses of her high-pressured corporate job. However, this message was not just simply sage fatherly advice. Kirsi shared with us the very personal and terrifying story of how her father suffered from a severe and unexpected stroke. A Seemingly healthy individual, her father, a very successful and driven "Type A" personality had paid a very heavy price for his years of living an overachieving lifestyle.

Kirsi shared with us chilling SPEC images illustrating the drastic reduction in activity and blood flow to a brain exposed to too much stress. Our daily stressors are wreaking havoc on our brains. Stress is zapping us of our productivity and impairing our ability to remember and learn new information. We are fatigued and run down from too little sleep and when we do sleep, stress is negatively affecting the quality of our sleep. We are seemingly walking around like zombies from the TV series The Walking Dead. The frightening truth is that stress, as Krisi's father learned, can lead to serious health conditions such as stroke and Alzheimer's disease.

However, don't stress out! There is good news. All of the damage that stress is causing to our brains is actually reversible. We just have to become more mindful of those things that are causing us stress and work toward changing some of our harmful behaviors. Now we have all seen the reports touting the benefits of regular exercise and a healthy diet but there are other steps we can take as well that are just as impactful.

One of the biggest triggers of stress in our high-tech world are our cell phones and email inboxes. Each time we look out our email, regardless of its content, our bodies activate the sympathetic nervous system, which causes a fight-or-flight response. Certainly, this reaction has its merits especially when being chased by a sabertooth tiger. However, over stimulating the sympathetic nervous system can be perilous to our health. Our goal is to activate the parasympathetic system, which promotes a state of relaxation and well-being.

Kirsi, challenged us all to unshackle the chains from our electronic devices. She told us to resist picking up that cell phone so frequently, especially one hour before going to sleep. Exposing ourselves to such stimuli before bed can cause us to have trouble sleeping as well as affect the quality of our sleep. Increased and improved sleep is essential for a properly functioning and healthy brain. I know I have heeded Kirsi's words and have already begun to adjust my cell phone habits. Nonetheless, underlying all of these behavioral changes is the simple goal to help calm our brains. This is where mindfulness and meditation can help.

I encourage you to join a mindfulness group at work or in your community and if you can't find one, start one yourself. Learn to meditate. It's easy and there are thousands of free apps out there that can help you get started. Even if you simply meditate for five minutes a day, you will be giving yourself an amazing gift. However, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to take advantage of every moment in everyday to be mindful. Focus your attention on your breathing while sitting in traffic or simply feel your feet touching the ground as you walk from your car to your office. Listen to the sounds in the air. You will be surprised at what you will hear in what you normally take for silence. I promise you that not only will you come away feeling more relaxed and calm but as Kirsi Paalanen explains, you will be doing wonders toward creating a healthier and improved functioning brain.