Learning to manage stress so that it doesn't overwhelm us can go a long way toward improving our outlook on life.
Of course, not all stress is negative—even happy occasions like births and weddings can be stressful. And some stress can even be helpful: Scientists know that acute, short-term stress can actually improve memory.
However, there's no doubt that chronic stress takes a toll on the brain. While no one can remove stress entirely from life, if we recognize our limitations and prioritize our activities to spend time on things that really matter and bring us pleasure, we'll be taking, important steps toward gaining control of our lives.
Research About Stress and Brain Health
Recent findings in brain research have provided intriguing new evidence for a link between stressful life events—such as the loss of a loved one or prolonged health problems—and the onset of depression.
In fact, in older persons, stress is thought to play a bigger role in triggering depression than in other groups, according to the American Association of Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP).
Some studies have found that, in many depressed people, the brain system that regulates the body's response to stress is overactive. When faced with a "stressor," the brain releases a flood of powerful stress hormones, which help the body respond to the stressful event. If this system is persistently activated—as it may be when stress is ongoing—it may begin to malfunction and fail to shut off the cascade of hormones.
Stress hormones are known to cause damage to nerve cells in certain brain regions. Some scientists also believe that a prolonged "bath" of these hormones may somehow set off brain changes that lead to depression.
While brain researchers finish piecing together the puzzling link between stress and depression, one thing seems clear: Managing stress throughout life may help prevent damage to the stress-response circuit in the brain.
Tips for Managing Stress
High levels of chronic stress are not only bad for blood pressure, cholesterol, and other physical ailments, but such stress levels wear away at brain fitness and overall memory performance. We can't entirely eliminate stress from our lives, but we can minimize it to improve brain health and memory ability.
Try these simple stress reduction strategies:
- Mind the basics: Eat regular, healthy meals, avoid caffeine, get enough sleep, and try to do some kind of regular physical activity, such as walking, swimming, or biking every day.
- If something is worrying you, take some kind of action that gives you a sense of control over the situation, even if only in a small way. For example, if you ' re worrying about relocating, make a list of all the moving-related things you have to do and begin checking them off as you do them.
- Recognize that there are some things you cannot control, and focus your attention on the things that you can.
- Use relaxation strategies such as deep breathing, meditating, or visualizing a calm, peaceful space. Read self-help books or trusted Web sites — or consult a therapist — if you need help learning relaxation techniques.
- Put things in perspective: Consider what is most valuable to you, set realistic goals, develop a " roadmap " for achieving them, and take small steps toward your goals.
- Try to balance work and leisure. When you ' re at work, take breaks throughout your day. If possible, go for a walk or get outdoors during your lunch break.
- Prepare ahead of time whenever possible: Rushing to get out of the house or to get to a meeting on time is stressful!
- Changes can be stressful; try to see them positively, as opportunities rather than threats.
- Develop a sense of humor, and put some fun back into your life by doing something you really enjoy every day.
- Carve out personal time — even if it ' s 15 minutes a day or an hour a week — and devote it to restful, rejuvenating activities that you enjoy.