A recent article by Deepak Chopra, M.D. and Alexander Tsiaras examined the effects of stress on the brain and provided several tips for dealing with stress effectively. Humans respond to stress with a powerful fight-or-flight reaction. Hormones are released in the body, causing the heart to pump faster resulting in a surge of energy. For most of human history, this emergency response was beneficial, enabling people to survive immediate physical threats, such as being attacked by a wild animal. But today, the stress in most people’s lives is caused by the psychological pressures of modern life. Daily challenges like a long commute or a difficult boss can activate stress hormones, and because these stressors don’t go away, the hormones don’t shut off. Instead of helping people survive, today the stress response can actually cause sickness. Chronic stress can harm the body in many ways. The stress hormone cortisol, has been linked to an increase in visceral fat around the organs. The accumulation of this type of fat is dangerous, since these fat cells actively secrete hormones which can disrupt the liver, pancreas and brain, causing problems such as insulin resistance, inflammation and metabolic syndrome. Chronic exposure to other stress hormones may also weaken the immune system, change the structure of some chromosomes, and damage the brain. Studies on mice have shown that chronic exposure to stress hormones can alter the physical structure of the brain in ways which effect memory, learning, and mood. Prolonged exposure to stress hormones caused dendrites, branch-like structures on nerve cells that send and receive signals, to shrink resulting in difficulties relaying signals across nerve cells. A study in 2011 also showed that rats with dendrites damaged by long term exposure to stress hormones had higher anxiety levels. Studies have also shown that exposure to stress hormones leads to general increases in the size of the hippocampus and decreases in the size of the amygdala, which is believed to be associated with increases in fear and general anxiety. Fortunately there are several ways to deal with stress and reduce its effect on the body and brain. Not everyone is equally vulnerable to stress, but once you determine what triggers your personal fight or flight response, the following tips can help you deal with stress.
1. Resolve the stressful situation if possible: Not every source of stress is within your control but it is important to resolve all the stressors which are.
2. Spend time with loved ones and cultivate healthy relationships: Research shows that socializing has many mental health benefits and can prevent negative feelings linked with stress.
3. Do an activity you enjoy: Adding an extra activity which you truly like can help you deal with other more demanding tasks.
4. Try relaxation techniques: Practices such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation can lead to increased feelings of calm and focus, which take your mind off of outside stresses.
5. Exercise regularly: Staying active can help you relax and is shown to aid in turning off the stress response responsible for stress hormone secretion.
6. Get enough sleep: Those who get enough sleep and feel well rested are more capable of calmly dealing with stressful situations.
7. Eat a healthy diet: Fruits, vegetables, and low-fat protein provide the body with the nutrients it needs to effectively deal with stress.
8. Appreciate the good things: Focusing on the positive rather than the negative has shown to be an effective technique for lowering stress hormone levels in the body.
9. Laugh: Research has suggested that laughing has a stress alleviating effect on the body, reducing heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension.
Seek professional counseling: If you feel that you are at risk for serious health problems due to stress, a trained professional can help you learn to deal with stress more effectively.