These days, we all live under tremendous stress -- economic challenges, job demands, family tension, always-on technology and the 24-hour news cycle all contribute to ceaseless worry, many times over things that are completely beyond our personal control. While many have learned to simply "live with it," this ongoing stress can have a serious negative impact on our ability to think clearly and make good decisions.
Studies show that chronic stress can also be a significant contributing factor to depression, and a recent German study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews also linked stress-related depression to a higher risk of cognitive decline and the development of Alzheimer's disease. Why? Under stress, the brain's limbic system -- the areas responsible for emotions, motivation, breathing, heart rate and hormone production -- triggers an alarm that activates the fight-or-flight response, increasing the production of adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol, which work together to speed heart rate, increase metabolism and blood pressure, enhance memory, the immune system and anti-inflammatory response, and lower pain sensitivity -- all good things when your very survival is on the line. When the stressful situation is over, the body resets back to normal.
However, under constant stress, the body is unable to reset. High adrenaline and cortisol levels persist, potentially causing blood sugar imbalances and blood pressure problems, and whittling away at muscle tissue, bone density, immunity and inflammatory responses. These events block the formation of new neural connections in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for encoding new memories. When these new connections are blocked, the hippocampus can actually shrink in size, hindering memory.
Chronic stress can almost make us "forget" how to make changes to reduce the stress, limits the mental flexibility needed to find alternative solutions and causes general adaptation syndrome (GAS) -- better known as "burnout" -- which makes us feel unmotivated and mentally exhausted.
What Can You Do?
Rather than simply learning to live with it, learning to effectively cope with and build mental resilience against stress can not only help you feel better on a daily basis, but also protect your brain from the damaging effects of stress to preserve and maintain cognitive function throughout life. Here's how:
- Get some exercise: Studies show that aerobic exercise helps build new neurons and connections in the brain to counteract the effects of stress. In fact, a 2012 study found that people who exercised very little showed greater stress-related atrophy of the hippocampus (the part of the brain that stores memories) compared to those who exercised more. Regular exercise also promotes good sleep, reduces depression and boosts self-confidence through the production of endorphins, the "feel-good" hormones.
Living with chronic stress can have a profound, and potentially irreversible, negative impact on your psychological and brain health. While often there is little we can do to change the stressful situation itself, there are many things we can do to alter or control our reactions to it. Managing stress through simple lifestyle changes and the use of basic techniques that anyone can do can help reduce stress-related damage to the brain, improve mental resilience and thwart cognitive decline as we age.
Alvaro Fernandez is the author of the new book "The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness: How to Optimize Brain Health and Performance at Any Age" (April 2013; 284 pages). This user-friendly, how-to guide cuts through the clutter of media hype about the latest "magic pill" for better brain health, offering proven, practical tips and techniques that anyone can use to enhance and maintain cognitive function throughout life and even ward off cognitive decline. Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, Alvaro is the CEO of SharpBrains.com, an independent market research firm tracking health and well-being applications of brain science.
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