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The Effects of Stress on Your Brain

by Institute for Vibrant Living

Whether dealing with financial issues, relationship problems or trouble on the job, people are exposed to stress on a daily basis.  No matter what the causes of stress, getting a handle on it is important.  Over a prolonged period, stress wreaks havoc with the health, and research shows it is particularly damaging to the brain.  A moderate amount of stress makes the brain more resilient by building stronger neural circuits, but chronic stress can damage the brain in more ways than one.

It is important to take steps to counter the effects of stress and the release of cortisol.

 

Interactions between the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal are referred to as the HPA axis, which controls the body's response to stress.  Stressful situations activate the HPA, and the body responds by releasing cortisol, a hormone which prepares the body for fight or flight.  This hyper-sensitive state of being can prove healthy and necessary in emergency situations but not over prolonged periods of time.

Excess cortisol triggers electric signals in the hippocampus (the area of the brain responsible for learning, memory and emotion).  This weakens the hippocampus and slows activity in the HPA axis, which not only affects learning and memory but diminishes the body's ability to respond to stress.

French researchers found that stress triggers the release of an enzyme that attacks areas of the hippocampus responsible for synaptic connections.  Destruction of connections between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex can affect judgment, sociability, memory and understanding.

Related:  Keeping your Memory Sharp

Fortunately, you can take a number of easy steps to help counteract the effects of stress and the release of cortisol:

Participate in enjoyable activities.  Whether you enjoy painting, gardening or lunching with friends, it's hard to be stressed when you're having fun.

Keep a journal.  Writing down feelings and emotions can be cathartic.  Keeping a journal also helps track your stress and determine what's causing it.  

Be mindful.  Worrying about the past or what might happen in the future does not help stress levels.  A number of activities like meditation, yoga, or guided imagery will help keep you in the present. 

Get off the couch or office chair.  Physical activity triggers the release of serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter that helps relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.  If you can't commit to a full workout, try desk pushups, running stairs or walking the dog.

It is next to impossible to avoid stress, but it's important to the health of the whole body to do something about it.  The activities listed above help weaken the effects of stress on the brain, heart, immune system and more

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