There is no doubt that everyone experiences stress from time to time. We live in a fast-paced world, always on the go and the demands of work and family can feel tremendous. Our brain is wonderfully adept at handling stress in the short-term rather perfectly. But what happens to our brain when we are under stress for weeks or even years? And can damaging effects be reversed?
First, it is important to understand what stress really means. We’ve all felt it, but it can be hard to put into words and is highly subjective. In the broadest sense, stress is the body’s reaction to changes that requires a mental, physical or emotional response or adjustment. Stress can come from any situation that makes you feel frustrated, angry, nervous or anxious. Rooted in the “fight or flight” response, stress can manifest itself through things like sweaty palms, racing heart or the feeling of butterflies in the stomach. However, it is also possible to experience low-grade, ongoing stress without those physical symptoms, which triggers the same chemical reaction in the body.
Long-term stress has been linked to heart disease, stoke and high blood pressure, as well as an increased risk in Alzheimer’s and dementia. But long-term stress also affects some people in less obvious ways, leading to other behaviors that are also harmful to the brain such as alcoholism, smoking and overeating. Neuroscientists at the University of California at Berkeley have found that chronic stress triggers changes in both the structure and the function of the brain.
So what are the best ways to manage stress? Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce stress and in turn, its effects on the brain. Relaxation techniques including yoga and meditation for as little as 20 minutes a day, may actually work as an “off” button to the genes that are activated by stress. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital published a study that showed that eight weeks of relaxation training resulted in changes in the brain, at the cellular level, that countered the damaging effects of stress. In addition to yoga and meditation, some additional recommended techniques that came out of the study include:
- Deep breathing
- Tai Chi
- Qi Gong
- Repetitive prayer
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Guided imagery
In addition, regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough quality sleep at night are also imperative to maintaining stress levels.
But there is more good news. Because our brains are constantly undergoing changes through plasticity, our behavior and chronic stress are never fixed. Our powerful brains can utilize positive choices that we make each day to improve the structure and connectivity of our brains. And we know today that brain development is ongoing throughout our life spans, capable of changing for the better at any time.