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If you’ve ever experienced a moment of heightened stress, during a car accident for example, you may have noticed your brain suddenly become hyper-alert. On the other hand, if you’ve ever experienced high stress over a longer period of time, you may have noticed the exact opposite — instead of feeling hyper-alert, you may have felt confused, unable to make decisions, and even memory impaired.
The reason for this apparent paradox is simple: your body is wired to deal well with short bouts of stress but is not wired to deal well with prolonged stress. Stress causes the release of chemicals in the body like adrenaline and cortisol, which enable us to react quickly to sudden stressful situations like seeing a child drowning in the ocean, or avoiding a car accident. As soon as one leaves the stressful situation the body’s healthy counter-stress system kicks in (the relaxation response) and chemical levels return to normal. However, under conditions of ongoing stress the body lacks the opportunity to return to homeostasis so continues releasing these chemicals in the body over prolonged periods.
Research shows that high levels of stress impair cognitive ability in several ways, such as:• Reacting prematurely;
• Making greater mistakes in cognitive tasks;
• Poor memory;
• Greater use of stereotyped judgements;
• Slower performance in shifting attention between tasks;
• Reduced impulse control;
• Difficulty making decisions.
Further, our brain cells simply cannot deal with excessive levels of these chemicals and their ‘excited’ state, so they begin to decay and even die. Yes! Stress kills brain cells, reduces the rate at which new brain cells are created and leads to your brain aging.
However, the news is not all doom and gloom. Research now shows us that the brain is “plastic”, that is, new cells can be created in the brain. Meaning, we can undo the damaging effects on the brain of prolonged or traumatic stress. For so many reasons, therefore, it’s important to learn how to reduce chronic stress if you want to maintain a healthy working brain. Here’s my guide to getting your parasympathetic nerve system (the system responsible for relaxation) to kick into gear!
Strategies to reduce stress
Exercise is perhaps the number one way of dealing with stress. Not only does it burn up the excess adrenaline that is produced by stressful situations and return your blood sugar back to normal, but it also generates endorphins that go a long way to helping you feel like your old self again. If you’re feeling angry about something it’s a great way to get out your frustrations too.
2. Write it down
A key contributor to stress is excessive worry and an inability to stop thinking about work at the end of the day. Also, sometimes it can be difficult to tell other people how you’re feeling, but it is important to have a ‘release-valve’ for your feelings of stress. Spend 15 minutes at the end of your work day writing down anything bothering you or even brainstorm a list of things you need to remember for the next day so you can stop thinking about it.
Laughing, or even just smiling (even when you don’t mean it!), causes the release of endorphins in your brain. Try watching a few episodes of your favourite sitcom if you’re feeling particularly stressed, or for even more of the laughter factor, watch a DVD of your favourite comedian. When we spend time with friends we usually laugh and smile a lot too, so just simply being with your friends can help you to relax, even without offloading your problems.
Scientists have found that having a pet can reduce chronic stress and even lengthen your life. Just spending time with a cherished pet reduces cortisol levels and increases the feel-good hormone serotonin in your brain. Stroking your favourite pet has even been shown to decrease blood pressure. It’s not uncommon for many pet-owners to tell their troubles to their pet too—give it a go! Take advantage of your furry one’s listening ear.
5. Relaxation and meditation
You don’t have to be Buddhist to reap the benefits of meditation. Just taking ten minutes out of each day to fully relax your body and empty your mind can have a myriad of health benefits, not least of which is a major reduction in stress. Meditation is said to reduce your chronic stress levels as well as improve your ability to deal with future stressors.
Author of 'De-stress Your Success: Get More of What You Want with Less Time, Stress and Effort', Sacha Crouch is a business, executive and life coach who helps people create the work and lives they love. For other free lifestyle resources visit www.activ8change.com.au.
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