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3 Tips to Reduce Stress for Better Brain Health

Boost your brain in 2018—week 3 of 4.

Peter Hermes Furian/Bigstock
Source: Peter Hermes Furian/Bigstock

Stress manifests differently for each of us. While common symptoms include muscle strain, headaches, digestive problems, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, worry, and even depression, the triggers for stress are highly individualized.

Stress—originally defined by Hans Selye in 1936 as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand for change”—has a generally negative connotation in our culture. We often associate stress with “distress,” though it is helpful to remember that stress can also be helpful (“eustress”) if it mobilizes us to successfully adapt to change, solve problems, or master situations that benefit us, such as working to gain a promotion or win a challenging game.

Cortisol and adrenaline—our primary stress hormones—are very effective at mobilizing us to manage short-term stressors, and can even boost our ability to learn new information. In particular, situations that threaten our survival are often etched quickly and precisely into our brain after cortisol quickly binds to our main memory processing area (the hippocampus). People who have had near-accidents often experience this firsthand, and are sometimes surprised at the clarity with which they can remember details of the event, sometimes as if it occurred in slow motion.

Unfortunately, the same stress hormones that are so helpful in short-term situations can significantly compromise bodily functioning, mood, and even brain health when stressors are chronic. For example, several studies show that the hippocampus is more likely to shrink if cortisol binds to it for long periods of time. In addition, increased levels of cortisol over time are associated with future memory problems and even dementia.

Last week’s blog—Week 2 of the 4-week Boost Your Brain in 2018 plan—focused on maximizing brain health with the MIND Diet, while Week 1 focused on the power of cardiovascular exercise. This week, we build upon that foundation with a focus on stress management to enhance brain health. Let’s take a look at three powerful stress reduction techniques:

1. Learn how you express stress

Many people are so accustomed to the effects of chronic stress that they are no longer aware of their stress-related symptoms. Stress is often expressed by the body in a myriad of ways, including health problems (headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension), cognitive symptoms (decreased concentration or difficulty recalling information), mood changes (feelings of helplessness, anxiety, depression, and worry), and behavioral changes (eating or drinking more, withdrawing, changes in sleep, substance use), among others. Often, people experience multiple stress-related symptoms in the context of feelings of tension and distress. If you are not sure whether you are stressed, ask a friend or family member for their feedback. Next, write down three symptoms you experience when you are stressed, so that you can identify them more readily in the future. By learning how your body expresses stress, you will be more successful in lowering it over time.

2. Identify what triggers your stress

Stress often results when the body mobilizes to respond to a situation, person, event, or change that is perceived to be challenging. However, there is great variety in what people perceive to be stressful. While public speaking may be exhilarating for one person, another may feel panicked. Identifying triggers for your stress will help you to minimize them. If you are not sure what triggers your stress, follow the wisdom of your bodily symptoms (#1 above) and notice the situations in which they tend to occur. For now, write down two situations in which you experience stress.

3. Practice “The Power of a Positive No”

Stress-reduction techniques are most effective when they are personalized. In addition to common techniques—including meditation, relaxation, exercise, journaling, engaging in favorite activities, and social support—the “Power of a Positive No” can be especially effective, especially when stress results from overextending ourselves with tasks that compromise our quality of life. Developed by William Ury, the “Power of a Positive No” relies on a “Yes! No. Yes?” framework in which we both protect our interests and prioritize the relationship with the person who has asked us to do a stressful task.

The process begins by identifying what we choose to say “Yes!” to (something personally meaningful, such as more time with family or leisure), followed by a “No” to situations that directly compromise that “Yes!”, and ending with a counter-proposal where we offer the other person something that allows both parties to benefit. For example, if you want to say “Yes!” to more time to exercise, you might need to say “No” to the request to serve on a professional committee for 5 hours per week; in turn, your “Yes?” could be to offer the name of another person to serve in your place, or to propose serving on the committee for two hours per week with a partner.

Protecting our time and interests while simultaneously maintaining good relationships is a win-win stress management strategy that pays dividends. In this next week, see if one of the two stressful situations you identified in #2 could benefit from “The Power of a Positive No” technique, or another stress reduction strategy discussed above.

Stress reduction has the power to enhance not only your memory and brain health, but your mood, relationships, and overall quality of life. Along with cardiovascular exercise and a brain-healthy diet, stress reduction is a powerful tool in your brain health toolbox. Here’s to a less stressful, more joyful week 3!

More from Michelle Braun Ph.D., ABPP-CN
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