Find out why stress can be helpful, when it can lead to damage, and how to manage it. Dr Desiree Dickerson, PREKURE’s Neuroscientist and Clinical Psychologist, shares facts about stress and tips how we can reduce it.
I think it’s really important to start by saying that not all stress is inherently bad. Indeed, we often need it when we face a challenge. Anything that pushes us outside of our comfort zone, we’re likely to experience some degree of stress.
1. The reality is without those challenges, or stresses, we would stagnate. It’s through those challenges that we’re able to grow, adapt, and learn. While performing, a little stress focuses our attention and helps us get the job done.
It’s when the stress is too much or it lasts for too long, that it can lead to damage.
A bit of stress heightens our arousal, it makes us more alert and more focused. In fact, it can even help us lock in memories, enhancing our neural connections and ultimately, help us rise to the challenge. When a stress response is normal and limited in its duration, the impact of it can be very adaptive. It’s when the stress is too much or it lasts for too long, that it can lead to damage.
2. A paper recently published in neurology highlights the extent to which marinating our brains in the stress-related hormone cortisol is associated with physical changes in our brain, and poor performance in cognitive tasks. The study found increased levels of cortisol were associated with decreases in brain volume and decreased attention, memory, visual perception, and executive functioning.
Our brains are marinating in cortisol for a lot longer than is good for us.
3. As we age, our stress response system, and importantly, our cortisol levels, don’t tend to regulate themselves as readily as they did when we were younger. Our baseline levels of cortisol increase as we age. Our bodies don’t respond to cortisol signals as quickly when we are exposed to a threat. So we need more of it in our system to get us going, and we don’t tend to calm down as quickly once the threat is removed. It takes our system longer to cut off the signal. All in all, our brains are marinating in cortisol for a lot longer than is good for us. This overexposure has been associated with many diseases, including osteoporosis, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
A Swedish study followed a cohort of women for over 35 years and found that those who reported stress at various time points during mid-life were significantly more likely to suffer from dementia later in life. They measured the women’s stress levels at three time points during mid-life, and for those who reported stress at all three time points, their risk of suffering from dementia later in life was more than double that of someone who reported feeling stressed at only one of those time points.
4. So, it seems safe to argue that managing how often and how quickly our brains trigger a stress response, and learning how to calm the system down when we’re already feeling stressed, would be incredibly valuable skills. Skills that have been shown to enhance our brain health, both as we age and at any age.
Exercise helps us regulate and reduce our stress hormone levels.
5. Exercise – being chief among those skills – helps us regulate and reduce our stress hormone levels. It reduces inflammation and it improves the clearing of waste from our system. Sleep and stress are intimately related.
6. Improved sleep habits can reduce the impacts of stress, and you’ll have noticed probably that increased stress levels certainly impact on our sleep significantly.
[Mindfulness meditation] can improve our sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, decrease our stress levels and improve our cognitive functioning.
7. One tool that’s gaining increasing traction is mindfulness meditation, and for good reason too. Whilst it’s a practice that’s been around for thousands of years, the neuroscientific evidence for its benefits are really only coming to the fore recently. What they show is that it can improve our sleep, reduce anxiety and depression, decrease our stress levels and improve our cognitive functioning including our attention and our executive functioning. It’s worth taking a look at.
Use this mindfulness technique to take the edge off worry and anxiety. It will help you be more focused and centered. Try it now with Dr Carlo Bellini.
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Help yourself, your family and friends or clients stay in peak mental condition. Dr Desiree Dickerson is the lead instructor for our online course Mind-Body Medicine – neuroscience, brain health, mental health and wellbeing.