How Stress Affects the Brain
Stress is good in small doses. It’s important too. In short bursts a stress response saved our ancestors from the threat of predators. For example, the stress response elicited by the sight of a lion walking in the jungle was a good thing. The increased heart rate, the hyped up muscle response, got you out of the person killer’s vicinity pretty quickly.
In times of stress all your energy gets diverted to your brain and muscles, and to help prepare the body for action, the stress hormone cortisol is released. Ideally a stress response should be a message for you to change something. For instance if you smell smoke in the building you’ll want to run out of there. Smoke! Stress response – run!
But what if you find yourself living with a prolonged stress response. If circumstances have left you stressed out on a daily basis, creating the latent smell of smoke in every room of your house that you can’t seem to get rid of? Someone looking for a job, or between jobs could find themselves living with a degree of prolonged stress. Being stressed out is not the optimum attitude to have while on the job hunt.
Physical responses to stress
The body is not meant to maintain a constant state of alert. If such a state persists, the immune system starts to decline. Signals to the brain get muddled, learning and memory suffer, but that’s not even the worst of it. Long term stress and increased cortisol levels can kill off brain cells and make your brain smaller! Judgment, the ability to make decisions also shrink and the risk for depression increases.
Using exercise and meditation to mitigate stress
Although it may not be possible to completely eliminate stressful situations from your life, mindful meditation and exercise can be very helpful in counterbalancing the stress.
Mindful meditation means keeping your awareness in the present moment, not letting it wander to either past or future circumstances, presumably the cause of your stress. If you can focus only on what you are doing at the given moment the stress will have nothing to cling to (hopefully).
Exercise doesn’t necessarily mean getting yourself to the gym. It can mean getting out for a walk or a bike ride, a yoga class, a swim. Something to move your body and get you out of your head.
Exercise and meditation don’t just help you cope with the stress, they can actually help reverse the effects.
Of course, the best way to deal with stress, and save your brain from shrinking in the first place, is to identify the factors that set you off and deal with them before you feel like you’re living in a house full of smoke! If your stress is job hunt related, make yourself a plan for everyday and follow it. Ensure you’re more concerned with doing than with worrying. Stay in the moment while you’re on task, then take time to get up and move in between!