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Stress Shrinks Your Brain

Article at-a-glance:

  • The body has amazing ways for adapting to its environment, and although many people under chronic stress may think it’s normal, it’s wreaking havoc with their health.
  • People with high stress have a hard time evaluating potential benefits and risks and the resulting decisions are poorer and have worse outcomes than people who are in a more relaxed state of mind.
  • And if that weren’t bad enough, research shows that chronic stress shrinks your brain.

by Dr. John Neustadt

Most people are living life with way too much stress. Every week people share with me their worries about their health, money, jobs, careers they don’t love, the terrible news on TV that seems to never stop, relationship woes and their kids. The list goes on and on.

When working with patients I ask them what their average stress level is on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being worst. Most people rate their stress at about eight, which they say is “high.” Chonic stress wreaks havoc on your health. It contributes to leaky gut, headaches, poor sleep, heart disease, dementia and getting infections. It also makes you dumber. 

Stress creates bad decisions

Research demonstrates in high stress situations, people end up making riskier decisions that are more likely to hurt than help them. There are a couple of explanations for this. Stress makes it hard to evaluate potential risk and benefits. The resulting decisions are poorer and create worse results than people who are in a more relaxed state of mind.

In high stress situations, people also start to focus on things that are irrelevant, such as worrying about the consequences of doing poorly or making the wrong decision. We have limited attention, and these distractions compete for, and take away, the mental energy required to focus on what’s really important to do our best. 

Stress shrinks your brain

And if that weren’t enough, research determined that elevated cortisol is associated with parts of the brain shrinking. This is called brain atrophy.

In one study, the areas of the brain that shrank over four years in people with chronic stress were the prefrontal, parietal, lateral and medial temporal regions. Additionally, the hippocampus was also smaller. 

What does this all mean? Nothing good. That’s for sure. The hippocampus stores short-term memory, so this could result in decreased memory and increased confusion. The prefrontal cortex is involved in planning and executing plans. The temporal cortex area is involved with integrating and processing sounds. When you want to stay as alert and involved in your life as possible, and enjoy yourself as much as possible, you definitely don’t want parts of your brain to shrink, especially these areas. 

Stress is stress is stress 

To your body, physical and emotional stress are the same. Whether you stub your toe or worried you won’t make a deadline, the body’s response is the same. It releases cortisol, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine. These hormones are part of the fight or flight response. The analogy that’s often used to teach this concept to medical students is, “Imagine that you’re being chased by a tiger.” The body has two responses. It either flees or battles it out. 

In either case, these hormones prepare people for action. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are in a category of hormones called catecholamines. They’re your rapid-response hormones. If you’ve ever noticed your heart racing, a heightened intensity of focus and greater alertness, that’s your catecholamines doing their job. They increase blood flow to skeletal muscles and decrease it to the intestines and alter blood flow in the brain. 

Cortisol is a steroid hormone. It’s actions happen slower than the catecholamines but are no less profound. Cortisol increases aggression, kills your libido, and generally leaves you feeling stressed out. Cortisol decreases human growth hormone (HGH) secretion and inhibits the body’s own repair mechanisms and keeps you awake at night. 

Epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol are all released by the adrenal glands. These pea-sized glands sit atop each of your two kidneys. When you’re chronically stressed out, your adrenal glands take the hit and it can create adrenal fatigue.

While these hormones can save your life in truly life-or-death situations, the majority of threats in our world today are all in your head. The fact is that the vast majority of catastrophes that you’ve ever imagined never happened—except in your mind.

But because evolution has primed us to be on the lookout for threats, we’re constantly scanning our environment for danger. People worry about how they’ll pay bills, about their health, about global warming, their marriage, their kids, their jobs or any of the dozens of other things people worry about. Add to that our 24/7 news cycle and being constantly connected to our technology and people are experiencing an unprecedented amount of stress. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) confirmed what we all know. Modern life is taking its toll. Each year the APA surveys Americans to assess our stress levels. Their 2017 survey revealed some alarming numbers. 

In the past month, nearly half of Americans lay awake at night worrying about something. That’s increased from their 2016 survey. Similarly, 75% of respondents agreed that they’d experienced at least one symptom of stress in the prior month, also an increase from the year before. In addition to lying away at night, symptoms included feeling nervous or anxious (36%), irritability or anger (35%), and fatigue (34%).”

The body has amazing ways for adapting to its environment. And for many people under chronic stress, they may in fact just think that’s normal. But just because people perceive it as the norm, doesn’t make it healthy or acceptable. You may think you’re comfortable living like this, but the environment still takes its toll. Even though humans can adapt to living with stress and regular levels of cortisol in our bodies, that doesn’t mean we should. 

Get your stress under control

Fortunately, there are simple things you can do now to start reducing your stress, reducing your risk and helping you start feeling better quickly. Here are my top seven tried-and-true recommendations. The more you do, the better you’ll feel. However, even focusing on just one, two or three will make a world of difference and get you moving in the right direction. 

1. Catch some ZZZZs. Sleep deprivation puts a tremendous stress on your body, decreases your ability to think clearly and complete daily tasks and increases cortisol. If you have difficulty sleeping, take NBI’s clinically validated Sleep Relief. For more tips on improving your sleep, read my blog, Your Checklist for Better Sleep.

2. Chill out. Practicing regular stress reduction techniques is important. Everyday. Yoga, meditation, walks, prayer and reading for enjoyment can all help. It really doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you are consistent. And don’t think you have to limit yourself to just one. I wake up 45 minutes before everyone else in my family. This is my quiet time before the rest of the house gets up and the day gets crazy. During my “me time” I get my cup of coffee, my journal and my book. I set a timer and read (for pleasure) for 30 minutes, and then take some time to write in my journal or quietly think and set my intentions for the day.

3. Create your stop-doing list. I love learning new things from my wife, Romi, a hugely successful entrepreneur, best-selling author, and an incredible mom to our two kids. She’s got a really full life, but manages to do it all while still taking care of her health. She taught me that the reason most people are stressed is because they have a hard time prioritizing themselves and saying no to things that don’t serve them. As a result, they’re overwhelmed and overcommitted. Most people only keep a To-Do list, but they’re missing their Stop Doing list, which is in many ways even more important than the to-do lists. I like to set no more than 3 goals at any one time for myself, and anything that doesn’t serve those goals goes on the stop-doing list. After all, you’re going to have to say No to some things in order to say Yes to yourself. You’re worth it, and you deserve it.

4. Nourish your body. Poor diet creates chronic inflammation and increases cortisol. And when you’re not giving your body the raw materials it needs, it can’t give you what you need to feel your best. Eat a stress-reducing diet and take the burden off you and your body. For tips on how to do this, read my blog, 3-Steps to Eating Healthy for Life

5. Deal with problems. One of the biggest reasons people feel stressed is because they don’t deal with issues that are bothering them. Avoiding the problem doesn’t make it go away. In fact, letting problems fester often makes them worse. Facing issues head on, recognizing them, being honest with yourself and others about them, and coming up with a plan to deal with them are the best ways to feel more in control of your life and reduce your stress. You get what we tolerate. If you tolerate feeling less than fantastic, that’s what you’ll have. If you tolerate people treating you in ways you don’t like, that’s what you’ll get. 

6. Control technology. Don’t let it control you. Smartphones and tablets have revolutionized modern life. And although I grew up before these devices were around, I can’t imagine life now without them. But for all they’ve done to improve our lives, being connected 24/7 increases people’s stress. Put limits on your technology. I spend the first working hour each morning clearing out my inbox. Then I don’t check email for most of the rest of the day. I limit my social media to chunks that are scheduled so I’m not aimlessly scrolling and wasting my time. And since staring at a screen before bed wreaks havoc on sleep, I put my screen down an hour before I go to sleep. For more on this topic, ready my blog, Three Way Smartphones are Ruining Your Sleep and Relationships.

7. Stop Multitasking. Multitasking increases stress and makes us less efficient. We actually don’t multitask. The brain can’t simultaneously focus on two tasks at once. Instead, we switch between tasks, a phenomenon in research circles called “task switching.” Every time we switch tasks, we release a dose of the stress hormone cortisol. It also releases the reward-seeking hormone dopamine and moves the brain’s focus away from the thoughtful, reasoned prefrontal cortex to the emotional limbic system.

Instead of multitasking, Tony Robbins teaches a system of chunking tasks during the day. I’ve been doing this for years now and it’s made a world of difference. I’m more productive and more relaxed. Essentially, you block out chunks of time to focus on specific tasks, and you don’t switch between them. When the time is up, you move to the next task you scheduled. In this way, I can get through all my emails in one chunk of time, sit down and plan marketing strategy with another chunk of time, work on new product development with a third chunk of time and handle kid and family stuff with a forth chunk. Just think how much more relaxed and productive you’d be if you structured more of your week like this. 

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