A prolonged exposure to high-stress levels can damage the brain and hamper good cognitive functioning. As part of a brain-healthy lifestyle, it’s essential to manage stress efficiently and effectively. What can you do when you realize that you are stressed? More importantly, what can you do to build resilience so you can go through difficult situations without feeling too much stress?
Here are six research-based lifestyle solutions that can be used to fight stress and build resilience:
Over time, chronic stress contributes to neuronal death and slows down neurogenesis. In contrast, studies show that aerobic physical exercise helps build up new neurons and connections. Exercise is a great tool to counteract the effects of stress on the brain. This has been shown in a study looking at middle-age and older adults. The 2012 study reported that people who did not exercise much exhibited greater stress-related atrophy of the hippocampus compared to people who exercised more.
Regular exercise also promotes good sleep, which is usually disturbed by stress. In addition, exercise can reduce the experience of stress and depression, as well as increase self-confidence, by boosting the production of endorphins, the “feel-good” neurotransmitters. As their name indicates, endorphins (endo- is short for endogenous, that is, coming from inside and –orphin is short for morphine) have an analgesic effect and produce a feeling of well-being. They are produced during exercise as well as during excitement, pain, expressions of love, and orgasm.
Relaxation, whether through meditation, tai chi, yoga, or a walk on the beach, lowers blood pressure, slows respiration and metabolism, and releases muscle tension. As such, it is a good tool to counteract the negative effects of stress. An intriguing 2008 study by University of Michigan researchers Marc Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan compared the restorative effects on cognitive function of walking in either a natural or an urban environment. The cognitive function they focused on was voluntary attention. Participants in the study first performed a 35-minute task that fatigued their attention. Then they walked for 50 minutes either in a city or in a large park. Upon their return, participants who took a walk in the park showed much better performance on a test of voluntary attention than those who took a walk in the city.
Interestingly, in a second study, the same restorative effect of nature was observed after people spent ten minutes merely looking at 50 pictures of nature (rather than pictures of a city). The researchers explained their results by the fact that unlike a natural environment, urban environments contain many attention-grabbing stimuli (e.g., a shiny, fast-moving car) that also require directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by that car). As a consequence, nature allows voluntary attention abilities to replenish much more than an urban environment does.
Cultivating social networks of friends, family, and even pets, can help foster trust, support, and relaxation. There is ample evidence that satisfying social relationships are crucial for both mental and physical health. Specifically, we know that loneliness increases risks of cardiovascular diseases and levels of stress and decreases quality of sleep. It has been linked with depression too. Loneliness is more strongly associated with how many close relationships one has than with mere contact with one’s social network members. This suggests that maintaining good relationships with a few close friends may be key to managing stress and staying healthy.
What does empowerment mean exactly? It means feeling in control over important aspects of our own lives—including brain health. Studies suggest an association between psychological empowerment and stress resiliency. Finding ways to empower oneself can be a defense against chronic stress.
Intuitively, we can sense that a good laugh seems to be a useful aid for fighting off stress, and indeed research suggests that it can help. For instance, in 2002 Mary Bennett and her colleagues reported that viewing a humorous video (as opposed to viewing a tourism video) decreased self-reported stress in a group of healthy adult women.
In 2004, a neuroimaging study showed that self-generated happiness or sadness activated the same parts of the brain as real emotions. In addition, imagined laughter was successful at reducing self-reported sadness and imagined crying at reducing self-reported happiness. Another small study in 1989 showed that viewing a 60-minute comedy video decreased participant’s levels of cortisol and epinephrine, which suggests that laughter could help counteract the hormonal effects of stress.
6. Positive thinking
Thinking positively about stressors can help moderate stress. In 2010, for example, Jeremy Jamieson and colleagues at Harvard University coached students into believing that feeling nervous and/or excited before an exam could in fact improve performance. In other words, they coached them into having positive thoughts and thereby reappraising their stress. The students received this coaching before taking practice graduate-school entrance exams in the lab. Compared with students who were not coached, these students got higher scores both during the practice test and on the actual exam 3 months later.
Thinking about positive events in general may also help enhance your mood and happiness and lower your levels of stress. Dr. Emmons has shown that keeping a “gratitude journal” in which you regularly write something you are grateful for significantly increases self-reported levels of happiness and well-being.