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The Effects of Stress on the Brain

I have reported on the effects of too much stress on the brain before, but I thought it was time for a summary of what I have found in the research, which is below. Following that are some suggestions for stress relief.

Some Good Effects of Stress?

Interestingly, a little stress may improve attention and memory in the short term. This makes sense from an evolutionary viewpoint. When faced with real physical threats we need to have a heightened awareness and ability to deal with the crisis.

However, most of us in the modern world rarely face real and immediate physical threats, yet we still have the stress response. In fact, we normally have it as a reaction to nothing but our own thoughts. Unfortunately, unlike animals (or our human ancestors) which release the stress and the hormones they create by running away or taking other actions, our stress tends to remain for hours at a time, sometimes getting worse as we have more anxiety-causing thoughts.

The result? Possibly brain damage, the research suggests. Cortisol and other adrenal steroid hormones are released during the stress response, and if the exposure is repeated and for long periods of time, these substances can damage the brain. They can block the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, preventing the storing of new memories. Some recent research suggest that chronic stress can lead indirectly to cell death as well.

This is especially disturbing because the damage may reduce our ability to creatively solve our problems or even make the changes necessary to reduce the stress which is causing the damage in the first place. In other words, it can become downward spiral of reduced brain function which reduces one's ability to deal with the causes, which then allows for more of the same. It appears that our modern stress does far more harm than good, both to the brain and the rest of the body.

Reducing the Effects of Stress

How do you best reduce or prevent chronic stress? There are a number of ways that have been covered in the Brainpower Newsletter and on this website. Meditation is very helpful for some people. The use of relaxing brainwave entrainment CDs helps as well. Regular exercise, humor and positive social interaction all seem to work for many people. Alcohol and other drugs may provide temporary relief, but generally cause more damage than they can prevent.

Of course, removing the causes of stress may seem like a natural solution, but this can be a tricky one. Often this approach becomes a mere avoidance of things and situations which cause us fear or discomfort. This can limit your opportunities in life and stunt your growth as a person. In fact, responding to fear by avoiding the people and situations which cause it may strengthen the fearful response, causing more anxiety.

This is where a bit of self awareness and a different perspective may be necessary. If we watch ourselves closely, we can see that with the exception of fear and stress related to immediate threats, like an animal attack, our response is not primarily to the event itself, but to our own thoughts. In other words, the causes are not out there, but in our own minds. If we see it from this perspective, then we can start to resolve the causes without avoidance of the things and situations we imagine to be the root of the problem. This is a much healthier approach.

I have written on this before, especially on the problem of identifying with one's anxious or fearful thoughts. The short lesson: Your thoughts are not you, and you do not have to take their advice, nor do you have to believe their demands. I will write on this topic again both on this website and others, but for now I will leave you with a quote:

Stress Exists because we insist. - Guy Finley

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