New research shows that there could be a significant link between stress and brain health. Here, you will learn more about stress, its biological impact upon the brain, the specific ways stress can influence brain health as well as various stress-reducing methods.
What is Stress?
We’ve all experienced it — but what, exactly, is stress? Stress is categorized as any excessive physical, mental or emotional tension that could potentially cause health problems or exacerbate already existing health-related issues. Stress can be the result of major issues such as professional pressures, financial difficulties, family concerns, relationship struggles and ill health. However, stress and anxiety might also result from minor, everyday aggravations like commuting and experiencing computer trouble.
Stress and Brain Health
When people experience periods of heightened stress, the body responds by releasing what are known as “stress hormones,” such as adrenaline and cortisol. These substances produce the fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s way of preparing to cope with whatever difficult circumstances it must face. During the short-term, such action is beneficial. However, continual exposure to elevated anxiety levels can begin to damage many different internal systems, most notably the brain.
Certain medical professionals opine that chronic stress and the release of stress hormones could lead to brain cell (neurons) malfunction. Eventually, this malfunction may result in cognitive challenges including memory loss, concentration difficulties, increased risk of developing anxiety disorders or depression, mood swings and other potentially serious mental maladies like Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and brain toxicity.
Study Links Stress and Brain Health
It is important to note that stress affects each person differently. Certain individuals possess the capacity to better cope with specific stressors than others. Additionally, its important to note that even minor stressors can affect the brain in some individuals to the same extent that major tension triggers might in other individuals.
According to a study performed by researchers representing Oregon State University, the small, everyday, bothersome nuisances and the manner in which people react to such triggers could play a role in predicting their future mental health. In the study, a team of researchers employed by the University’s School Of Public Health examined the impact minor stressors, like being stuck in traffic, had on more than 100 senior citizens ranging in age from 65 to 95. The test subjects’ cognitive skills were examined every six months for a duration of approximately two-and-a-half years.
In addition to completing the mental exercises, participants were also asked to disclose the specific stress triggers they had been exposed to prior to their arrival at the test site. Researchers measured the subjects’ stress levels by gauging their response to specific inquiries and rating their anxiety-laden experiences on a scale of intensity. Moreover, participants were required to fill out a questionnaire regarding any physical health manifestations these stressful encounters precipitated.
Researchers concluded that those who experienced more adverse reactions to stress exhibited a decline in cognitive functions versus subjects to took their experiences in stride. Another interesting finding related to the ages of those most influenced by stressful circumstances. Researchers discovered that poor cognitive performance was displayed more often in individuals ranging in age from the late seventies to early nineties.
Investigators further opined that, since the elderly population continues to grow in size, these findings could have significant clinical significance. Moreover, these scientists suggest that seniors (and people of all ages) should consider exploring ways to alleviate their exposure to stress if they wish to avoid these potential mental pitfalls.
Some healthcare professionals suggest that combating stress involves a two-pronged approach comprised of preventative endeavors geared towards helping people limit their exposure to stressful circumstances and restorative measures designed towards helping those alleviate the physical manifestations or mental issues related to stress exposure.
It may be difficult for anyone to prevent all exposure to stress and live a tension-free existence. However, there are certain safeguards individuals might employ to limit the number of tension-filled circumstances they encounter, such as:
- Identifying specific triggers: If one can pinpoint the situations that cause stress, it’s possible to avoid them.
- Time management: Allocating time more efficiently might enable one to accomplish tasks in a less rushed and stressful manner.
- Not spreading oneself too thin: Taking on too much responsibility is a surefire way to become over-stressed. The impact of stress might be avoided by focusing solely on the activities one is either required to or wishes to take on.
Most individuals will experience the physical and mental manifestations of stress at one time or another. When such circumstances occur, it’s crucial to keep tension at bay and try to prevent the situation from having an even greater detrimental influence over one’s body. Common stress restoration endeavors might include:
- Exercising: Physical activity enables the body to release tension and frustration. In addition, exertion stimulates bodily release of hormones that help our systems heal and which improve mood.
- Consuming a healthy diet: Stress can weaken the immune system and leave individuals susceptible to various physical and mental illnesses. Eating foods rich in nutrients keeps the immune system functioning properly.
- Practicing relaxation techniques: Breathing exercises or mind/body balancing endeavors like yoga or tai-chi can not only reduce tension but promote mental clarity.
- Avoiding bad habits: Stressful times are when some individuals might turn to alcohol or cigarette smoking as a way to break tension. These habits do not only pose potential danger to one’s physical health but can become mentally addicting.