Stress is virtually unavoidable, especially if you live in an urban environment. The fast paced life and the modern technology come with a cost to your health – we are continuously bombarded with information and feedback from other people, and the challenges we face on a daily basis may be accompanied by a buildup of stress or tension in our body. Conflicts that occur in the family, tensions at work, academic pressures, financial burdens and the continuous exposure to news and technology can make us feel lost and mentally exhausted from time to time. While some level of stress is beneficial for adaptation and mental resource mobilization, chronic stress that is not diminished or relieved through regular relaxation can accumulate and translate into problems with mental health later. The impact of chronic stress can range from an impaired ability to make solid, rational decisions to brain damage, depending on the exposure and the individual’s own defense mechanisms or coping skills. Prolonged exposure to stress without enough relaxation for your mind can progressively lead to depression. Anxiety disorders are also around the corner for chronically stressed individuals. However, scientists may have even more bad news for individuals who neglect stress completely and immerse themselves into work and family problems, ignoring relaxation techniques completely. Persistent exposure to high levels of stress can make you more vulnerable to degenerative processes that may occur in your central nervous system and may translate into diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
How can stress make you more susceptible to impaired cognition and brain degeneration?
The limbic system in your brain is responsible for processing emotional stimuli and elaborating the stress response that mobilizes your body for survival and elimination of the stressor. The limbic system, which consists of the amygdala, the hippocampus and other brain areas, is able to initiate the flight or fight response when stress levels go over the roof and the brain is forced to respond accordingly. This brain region can trigger the stress response by sending signals to produce more adrenaline and cortisol, which are adrenal hormones implicated in adjusting your physiology for survival conditions. These stress hormones have a variety of biochemical and physiologic effects, which consist in raising blood sugar levels, inducing a more rapid heart rate to improve blood circulation, raising blood pressure, reducing the inflammation response in your body and temporarily inhibiting the immune system. These are just some of the adaptations needed when confronted with emergencies or survival situations, which allow the body to eliminate the threat or escape the stress causing situation as soon as possible.
The stress response and the production of these hormones are not supposed to last for long. In a healthy individual and under normal circumstances, the body should return quickly to its previous physiological status once the effect of the stressor has been neutralized. This ability of the central nervous system and the entire body to adapt to stressful circumstances and then resume its normal function is critical to your health. You probably don’t encounter many life threatening situations in modern society and survival skills are rarely required nowadays. However, the constant bombardment with news, technology and family issues can create persistent stress that does not allow the brain to return to a normal, relaxed status. This chronic stress response mode is very harmful through a persistence of high levels of cortisol and adrenaline into your blood circulation. High stress can inhibit the immune cells, which are crucial in fighting infections or tumors, supporting high levels of blood sugar, blocking protein production and weakening your memory by preventing the creation of new synaptic connections in the hippocampus. In other words, when exposed to persistently high levels of stress, you become less immune to infections, weaker physically, your sugar metabolism is altered and your mental sharpness and memory are considerably affected in a negative manner.
If you are chronically stressed at work or family tensions don’t allow you to relax at all, then don’t be surprised that you forget peoples’ names and you seem to be foggy all the time. Just recognize that you need some time for yourself. At least now you know what is disrupting your mental sharpness and efficiency at work. The persistent exposure to chronically elevated cortisol and adrenaline levels does not allow the body to return to a normal, relaxed status. In fact, if you have been dealing with stress long enough, your brain probably “forgot” how to function without constant mental or emotional tension. The continuous effects of cortisol can result in a diminished volume of the hippocampus through the loss of neuronal connections, which impairs the ability to acquire new memories and affects mental sharpness. New nervous pathways for memory are not being created since your body is in a continuous survival mode, which does not allow for the formation of new neuronal connections. The mind loses its psychological flexibility and the capacity to identify new ways to relax and overcome the stress since it is persistently stimulated by cortisol to remain in a flight or fight response mode. These processes describe what is known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS), also popularly known as experiencing a “burnout.” Diminished mental flexibility does not allow you to focus on your goals and preserve you creativity, so you tend to lose your motivation and feel that your energy reserves are completely depleted. Unfortunately, you have been officially taken “hostage” by your daily stress and family tensions, and you don’t seem to find an escape route. Luckily, there are several things you can do to remediate the problem and break this self-enforcing cycle of stress.
Methods to Develop Mental Strength and Cope with Stress
You can’t eliminate stress from your life unless you live isolated on a mountain in a peaceful and serene atmosphere. You need a change of perspective, and learning how to deal with stress and how to diminish its impact on your brain function is key to breaking out of the “burnout” status. Here are some tips on how to develop mental resilience and handle stress more efficiently, which can prevent emotional distress and even brain damage caused by the persistence of stress hormones in your body.
1. Cardiovascular exercise, also referred to as aerobic exercise, helps prevent some of the brain damage experienced by chronically stressed individuals. In fact, these effects are confirmed by studies, which reveal that hippocampus atrophy is less pronounced and severe in individuals who experienced high levels or stress but managed to keep practicing regular aerobic exercise at the same time. Individuals who did not use exercise as a stress reducing strategy showed more significant hippocampus damage, which translates into memory deficiencies and problems with emotion regulation. Regularly practiced cardiovascular exercise, which may include long distance, moderate pace jogging, swimming or cycling, results in less negative impact and damage generated by cortisol and adrenaline in your brain. These hormones are usually depleted significantly during exercise sessions, so their concentration is greatly diminished after physical activities, exerting a protective effect on the hippocampus. Cardiovascular exercise also helps improve sleep quality, reduce negative thoughts and depression, but also promotes the release of endorphins in your brain, which makes you feel more confident and happy.
2. Relaxation techniques can help your mind become more quiet and peaceful. It may be difficult to relax at first, especially if you have never practiced meditation, or oriental mind focusing techniques like yoga or tai chi. You can start with easier and more accessible methods like a walk in the park or on the beach, or listening to relaxing music. It is up to you to identify the relaxation method that suits your individual preferences and personality. Virtually all relaxation techniques can help restore the blood pressure to normal levels, diminish anxiety and ease muscle tension. Meditation is especially beneficial for your mind that has been exposed to chronic stress because it facilitates easing the accumulated mental tension and reducing the frequency of automatic, negative thoughts that may cause depression. Furthermore, relaxation techniques can help with cellular regeneration and diminishing the impact of stress hormones on your immune system, making you more resistant when confronted with infections.
3. It is easy to ignore your friends and neglect some of your meaningful social relationships when work related stress or family tensions take over your mind. However, medical research suggests that staying engaged in your social connections and friendships allows you to counteract some of the brain damaging effects of chronic stress. As human beings, our brains are designed to receive continuous feedback from our peers, so don’t neglect your friends and make sure to find some spare time and invite guests or family members to your house for a nice dinner or a pleasant conversation. Pets can provide excellent company too. Some research studies have revealed that the elderly who own pets showed less prominent signs of dementia and brain degeneration over time when compared to individuals who preferred to live alone. Pets can definitely ease some of the accumulated mental tension and help chronically stressed individuals relax and enjoy pleasant activities together.
4. Proper control of your own thoughts and stress level can help you achieve mental resilience. In other words, you need to be aware of your feelings, understand the factors that can make you angry, anxious or stressed out, and manage those factors adequately. Individuals who are able to control their emotions do not experience the negative impact of stress as much as those who fail to monitor their own psychological condition. Building your self confidence and achieving adequate emotional control will not happen in a matter of days. It takes some time to observe your thoughts, examine the way your personality interferes with the stress you are experiencing and handle those stress-causing factors to diminish their impact on your brain health. Applications and video games that are based on monitoring the variability of your heart rate can be a great place to start. Don’t hesitate to ask for professional help on how to take control of your own mind if you feel that stress and mental exhaustion start to overwhelm you.
5. Don’t forget to laugh from time to time, even when the stress levels are over the roof. You can make fun of your situation with some of your friends, and it will help relieve some of your anxieties and mental tension. Being self-ironic and enjoying a good joke even when you are confronted with tough decisions and stressful events are a measure of your psychological flexibility. Your brain releases considerable quantities of endorphins when you are amused or when you laugh, which have a direct influence on cortisol levels. Watching comedy performances or engaging in jokes with your friends are great ideas of fun activities that can help you reduce the impact of stress hormones and anxiety on your brain. You can obtain a mind relaxing effect even by just thinking about something hilarious or funny. Allow yourself to become immature and less serious from time to time, and you will certainly observe the positive mental effects of a good laugh.
6. Adopting a positive perspective on your life can help immensely in your endeavor to reduce the impact of chronic stress on your brain health. If you choose to change the way you see the “bad”, stressful things that can happen in your life, then you are certainly one step closer to developing mental toughness and resilience. One study examined the effects of positive thinking on students who were preparing for an exam. One group of students was trained to believe that the stress experienced by them before a test or an exam is actually beneficial and can boost their mental performance. The other group of students was left to prepare for the exam the way they normally did, without any psychological intervention. Researchers found that the first group who was trained to think in a more positive manner about the stress to which they were exposed performed significantly better at tests compared to the second group. Start developing mental toughness by changing how you perceive certain events in your life and always strive to find positive aspects in any stressful situation.
Being exposed to stress all the time without ways to relax efficiently can be damaging to your mental health. Everyone can experience family problems or tensions at work from time to time, but it is the mental resilience and the capacity to cope with stress that make the difference between a mentally strong person and an individual suffering from exhaustion and chronic stress. It is certainly beneficial for your mental health to develop mental toughness by implementing some of these techniques rather than suffer from daily stress and complain about it all the time. Take control of your mind and implement some of these methods, which allow you to avoid the unpleasant consequences of persistent stress in your life.