Advertising
Advertising

Science Says Stress Can Seriously Change Your Brain, Here’s How

Science Says Stress Can Seriously Change Your Brain, Here’s How

Are having trouble concentrating and learning new ideas? Do you toss and turn at night? Science says that it isn’t your fault. These are side effects of feeling too much stress. Who doesn’t feel over stressed these days? It may be the standard, but it isn’t normal. Too much stress can literally shrink the size the of the brain, and reduce your ability to perform simple tasks.

How Stress Affects Your Brain

Stress isn’t all bad. In fact, it’s quite helpful when you’re feeling the right amount of it. Stress is what pushes you through during a marathon and gives you the energy to finish it. Stress is what gives you the ability to pull a magical speech off in front of a big crowd when you were positive you didn’t remember all your lines.

Advertising

However, so many of us are overworked at work and home, and never have a chance to destress. This is when it becomes a problem. Whether you’re in a car crash or at work, the body responds the same when the brain thinks there is a threat. So our brains have cortisol pumping through them almost daily, which is not how nature intended it.

When we’re too stressed, too much cortisol would be present that creates quite a few issues:

Advertising

  • Dampens your immune system.
  • Raises cholesterol and blood pressure, increasing your chance for a heart attack.
  • Hinders the hippocampus from making new brain cells. This part of your brain helps memory, and too much cortisol has been shown to lead to Alzheimers.
  • An excess of cortisol in the blood is related to chronic depression.
brain-scan-1366
    Brain scans of a cognitively healthy person and a person with Alzheimers from Dementia Lab.

    These brain scans show the hippocampus of two people. The smaller the hippocampus, the worse your memory is. The hippocampus deteriorates naturally with age – leading to Alzheimers, but too much cortisol hinders its ability to rejuvenate brain cells. This speeds up the process of deterioration. You can see the far higher amount of “blank space”, which is a where the brain has deteriorated.

    Stress has become tricky; it is absolutely necessary for human survival, yet too much of it can kill you.

    Advertising

    3 Ways to Overcome Stress

    If stress is really killing us, there must be a way to live without much stress, right? There are a handful of recommended daily habits that will reduce your cortisol in situations where it isn’t necessary.

    1. Evaluate and Change

    The first recommendation is that you evaluate where your stress is coming from, and you change it. Is it coming from work? Perhaps you should consider something simple like talking to your boss or something drastic like finding a new job. If your stress is coming from your spouse, it’s time that you sit down and talk about how your relationship can be healthier moving forward. If you’re just plain overwhelmed by all aspects of your life, you can learn to say “no” more often. We al feel the need to do everything thrown at us, but that may literally kill us.

    Advertising

    2. Exercise

    Doing daily exercises such as power-walking, running, biking, or even weight training will get your blood sugars pumping naturally, without the need for stress. You’ll be better equipped to handle daily situations in a calm manner, and your brain will sound the cortisol alarm less often.

    3. Meditation

    Meditation is simply one of the best ways to reduce stress. Deep breathing and focused thinking are like exercise for your brain. Meditating is like unplugging your brain from the constant stimulation of the real-world, giving it a chance to rest and rework and itself. Personally, I use an app called HeadSpace, which helps me with 10 easy minutes of meditation a day.

    Featured photo credit: Sliced Brain Anyone?/Matt Hobbs via flickr.com

    More by this author

    He Comes To The US Feeling Helpless But An Old Couple Changes His Mind It Gives Him Goosebumps Every Time He Thinks of the Girl Who Waited For Him At The Next Stop Study Says Kids Who Don’t Conform Easily Are More Likely To Be Successful Science Says Stress Can Seriously Change Your Brain, Here’s How Eating Chocolate At Least Once A Week Can Change Your Brain

    Trending in Brain

    1 Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts 2 What Is Unconscious Bias (And How to Reduce It for Good) 3 What is Cognitive Dissonance (And How to Dodge it) 4 How Do Memory Vitamins Work? (And the Best Brain Supplements) 5 How Not to Let Cognitive Bias Control Us When Dealing with COVID-19

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Published on July 7, 2020

    Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

    Brain Training: 12 Fast, Fun Mental Workouts

    Exercise isn’t just for your body. Just as important is keeping your mind strong by training your brain with fun mental workouts.

    Think of your mental and physical fitness the same way: you don’t need to be an Olympian, but you do need to stay in shape if you want to live well. A few cognitive workouts per week can make a major difference in your life.

    The Skinny on Mental Workouts

    Physical fitness boosts your stamina and increases your muscular strength. The benefits of working up a mental sweat and brain training, however, might not be so obvious.

    Research suggests that cognitive training has short- and long-term benefits, including:

    1. Improved Memory

    After eight weeks of cognitive training, 19 arithmetic students showed a larger and more active hippocampus than their peers.[1] The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory.

    2. Reduced Stress Levels

    Mastering new tasks more quickly makes the work of learning less stressful. A stronger memory can call information to mind with less effort.

    3. Improved Work Performance

    Learning quickly and remembering key details can lead to a better career. Employers are increasingly hiring for soft skills, such as trainability and attention to detail.

    4. Delayed Cognitive Decline

    As we age, we experience cognitive decline. A study published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that 10 one-hour sessions of cognitive training boosted reasoning and information processing speed in adults between the ages of 65 and 94.[2]

    Advertising

    Just like in physical exercise, what’s important isn’t the specific workout. To be sustainable, cognitive workouts need to be easy and fun. Otherwise, it’s too easy to throw in the towel.

    Fun Brain Training Exercises for Everyone

    The best about fun mental workouts? There’s no need to head to a gym. Feel free to mix and match the following activities for daily brain training:

    1. Brainstorming

    One of the simplest, easiest ways to engage your brain? Coming up with solutions to a challenge you’re facing.

    If you aren’t good at solo ideation, ask a partner to join you. When I’m struggling to come up with topics to write about, I call up my editors to bat ideas around. Friends or co-workers are usually happy to help.

    2. Dancing

    Isn’t dancing a physical workout? Yes, but the coordination it requires is also great for training your brain. Plus, it’s a lot of fun.

    Studies suggest that dance boosts multiple cognitive skills.[3] Planning, memorizing, organizing, and creativity all seem to benefit from a few fancy steps.

    3. Learning a New Language

    Learning a new language takes time. But if you split it up into small, daily lessons, it’s easier than you might think.

    With language learning, every lesson builds on the last. When I was learning Spanish, I used a tool called Guru for knowledge management.[4] Every time I’d learn a verb tense, I’d create a new card to give me a quick refresh before moving on.

    Advertising

    4. Developing a Hobby

    Like languages, hobbies take time to develop. But that’s the fun of them: you get a little better—both at the hobby and in terms of brain function—each time you do them.

    If you’re trying to train your brain and improve a certain cognitive skill, choose a hobby that aligns with it.

    For example:

    • Attention to detail: Pick a hobby that requires you to work patiently with small features. Woodworking, model-building, sketching, and painting are all good choices.
    • Learning and memory: Choose an activity that requires you to remember lots of details. Your best bets are hobbies that require lots of categorization, such as collecting stamps or coins.
    • Motor function: For this brain function, physical activities can double as fun mental workouts. Sports like soccer and basketball build gross motor functions. Fine motor functions are better trained through activities like table tennis or even playing video games.
    • Problem-solving: Most hobbies require you to problem-solve in one way or another. The ones that test your problem-solving skills the most, however, take some investigation.

    Geocaching is a good example: Using a combination of clues and GPS readings, geocaching involves finding and re-hiding containers. Typically done in a wooded area, geocaching is a fun way to put your problem-solving skills to the test.

    5. Board Games

    Playing a board game might not be much of a physical workout, but it does make for a fun mental workout. With that said, not all board games work equally well for cognitive training.

    Avoid “no brainer” board games, like Candy Land. Opt for strategy-focused ones, such as Risk or Settlers of Catan. Remember to ask other players for their input.

    6. Card Games

    Card games build cognitive skills in much the same way board games do. They have a few extra advantages, though, that make them worthy of special attention.

    A deck of cards is inexpensive and can be played anywhere, from a kitchen to an airplane. More importantly, a deck of cards opens the door to dozens of different games. Challenge yourself to learn a few in an afternoon.

    Advertising

    7. Puzzles

    Puzzles are great tools for building a specific cognitive skill: visuospatial function. Visuospatial function is important to train because it’s one of the first abilities to slip in people struggling with cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.[5]

    Choose a puzzle you’ll stick with. There’s no shame in starting with a 500-piece puzzle or choosing one that makes a childish image.

    8. Playing Music

    Listening to music is a great way to unwind. But playing music goes one step further. On top of entertaining you, it makes for a fun mental workout.

    Again, choose an instrument you know you’ll stick with. If you’ve always wanted to learn the violin, don’t get a guitar because it’s less expensive or easier to pick up.

    What if you can’t afford an instrument? Sing. Learning to control your voice is every bit as challenging as making a set of keys or strings sound good.

    9. Meditating

    Not all cognitive exercises are loud, in-your-face activities. Some of the most fun mental workouts, in fact, are quiet, solo activities. Meditating can help you focus, especially if you have pre-existing attention issues.

    Don’t be intimidated if you’ve never meditated before. It’s easy:

    • Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit or lie down.
    • Set a timer for 10 minutes, or for however long you have to meditate.
    • Close your eyes or turn off the lights.
    • Focus on your breathing. Do not try to control it.
    • If your thoughts wander, gently bring them back to your breath.
    • When the timer goes off, wiggle your fingers and toes for a minute. Slowly bring yourself back to reality. Remember the sense of serenity you found.

    10. Deep Conversation

    There’s nothing more mentally stimulating than a good, long conversation. The key is depth: surface-level chatter doesn’t get the mind’s wheels spinning like a thoughtful, authentic conversation. This type of conversation helps in training your brain to think more deeply and reflect.

    Advertising

    Choose your partner carefully. You’re looking for someone who’ll challenge your ideas without being confrontational. Stress isn’t good for brain health, but there’s value in coming up with creative arguments.

    11. Cooking

    When you think about it, cooking requires an impressive array of cognitive skills. Developing a cook’s intuition requires a good memory. Making sure flavors are balanced takes attention to detail. When something goes wrong in the kitchen, problem-solving skills come into play. Motor control is required to stir, flip, and whisk.

    If you’re going to cook, you might as well make enough for everyone. Invite them into the kitchen as well: coordinating with other chefs adds an extra layer of challenge to this fun mental workout.

    12. Mentorship

    Whether you’re the mentee or the mentor, mentorship is an incredible mental workout. Learning from someone you look up to combines the benefits of deep conversation with skill-building. Teaching someone else forces you to put yourself in their shoes, which requires empathy and problem-solving skills.

    Put yourself in both situations. Being a student makes you a better teacher, and teaching others gives you insight into how you, yourself, learn.

    Final Thoughts

    Your mind is your most important possession, and training your brain is needed to maintain its health. Don’t let it get soft.

    To keep those neurons firing at full speed, add a few fun mental workouts to your schedule. And if you’re still struggling to get your brain in gear, remember: there’s an app for that.

    More Tips for Training Your Brain

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

    Reference

    Read Next