The Neuroscience of stress and how to reverse the damage to your brain.
The last few years have been incredibly stressful for many. The uncertainty of the ongoing pandemic, overwhelming information, unrest with organisation restructures, and the growing cost of living impact our mental health and well-being.
Long-term ongoing stress can have harmful consequences for your health, particularly on the brain. We know that stress can be the body’s response to physical, mental, or emotional pressure.
However, not all stress is harmful; how we perceive stress is important. The good news is the power of mindfulness and science can help reverse the damage.
Our brains when we are stressed?
In a simplified way, when we are feeling stressed, there are two key parts of the brain that are important, the thinking brain – is the most evolved part of the brain (The pre-Frontal Cortex responsible for rational thinking). It helps us pay attention, focus, problem-solve, inhibit, make decisions, and more. It is what we rely upon as humans to get through our workday.
Then we have the less evolved part of the brain, the emotional brain known as the Limbic system, the emotional centre, where the Amygdala is. It is responsible for setting off the stress response, our survival response (sending cortisol – the stress hormone).
The key thing to understand is that these two parts of the brain cannot operate simultaneously, and when we get stressed, our emotional brain gets activated.
Essentially stress puts the thinking brain (rational thinking) offline, and we cannot access this thinking rational brain that helps us. When stressed, we rely on the emotional brain, which is helpful when we are in danger (survival mechanism), i.e. opening a hot oven – immediately taking a step back without thinking or when a car tyre goes flat on a busy road – getting you to safety straight on autopilot.
When working and managing relationships, this emotional part of the brain is inadequate, which is what we are left with when stressed.
When we are calm and safe, our brain is more open for business, connection, exploring options, taking risks, problem-solving focusing on outcomes, weighing up good decisions and collaborating with others.
Have we underestimated the damage that stress can cause?
Not just to our emotional well-being but to our physical well-being.
There is lots of research looking at the corrosive effect of chronic stress. The stress response was designed millions of years ago to protect us from physical danger, so it prepares our body for fight-flight or a freeze response from a predator like a tiger to kill us.
These days the problems we face are social, conflicting work deadlines, overload of information/ workloads, fatigue from long workdays, and managing multiple relationships. This stress response was not designed to be switched on all the time; when it is, it can damage the body and brain.
Chronic stress can be toxic to the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is important for memory and learning. It can kill brain cells, reduce memory and learning capabilities, and lead to mental illness, insomnia and chronic illnesses, just to name a few.
Repairing and reversing the damage
The silver lining is that there are options to help repair and reverse the damage.
Here are you few to consider. I recommend starting with one at a time and embedding this as a habit before moving on to the next.
Tips for reducing stress daily:
- 10 minutes of meditation – in one month can drastically reduce stress levels. I use the breathe app to provide a variety of meditation and mindful options to explore. Recommend starting with 5 minutes a day and building up from here.
- Good sleep hygiene – we sleep for approx. One-third of our lives. The quality of our sleep influences the quality of the time we are awake. For adults (18-64 years old), suggest between 7-9 hours, depending on your current situation.
- Practice gratitude – focus our mindset on what is good and positive
- Healthy eating habits/ nutrition – what you eat and drink is fundamental to how your body and brain function, including how you feel within yourself. Choosing the right ingredients is an important consideration. Ask me for my top 10 brain foods.
- Social connection – humans are born to connect regardless of being introverted or extroverted; the brain is known to be a social organ.
- Exercise – increasing our oxygen levels helps us rejuvenate our body and brain, allowing us to build resilience and bounce back from obstacles
- Rest, recovery and relaxation – nurturing our body and brain is essential. Slowing down to go faster.
- Music – can boost cognition function and connect both hemispheres of the brain, allowing one to access information effectively.
- Consult a coach in peak health performance and well-being that also understands business and leads people in brain-friendly and empowering ways. Hence the WHY behind writing the book REWIRE for SUCCESS – an easy guide for using neuroscience to improve choices for work, life and well-being.
My WHY improves the lives, productivity and performance of individuals, teams and organisations while positively impacting their health and well-being.
Note: As mentioned above, not all stress is harmful and recommend reviewing the article ‘What is the stress mindset’ for further insights into the importance of how we perceive stress.
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