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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.

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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:

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  • 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.

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    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.

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    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

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    Last Updated on September 18, 2020

    How to Improve Memory: 7 Natural (and Highly Effective) Ways

    How to Improve Memory: 7 Natural (and Highly Effective) Ways

    Memory plays an integral role in our lives, both in the short and long term. If you’re wondering how to improve memory, I’m here to tell you that there are natural and effective ways to do so.

    Despite what you might think, improving your ability to recall information is certainly possible. You just need to know the right ways to do it.

    Let’s dive straight into the first of seven easy ways to improve memory efficiently and reduce the risk of memory loss.

    1. Meditate

    We live in a world of non-stop, 24/7 information. It’s like a waterfall that’s endlessly pouring news, data, facts, and figures into our conscious minds.

    Unfortunately, our brains are not designed to absorb this tremendous amount of information. It’s no wonder, then, that most people struggle to remember information and recall things.

    Even if you believe you have a good memory and are comfortable with multi-tasking, you’ll also be aware that there’s only so much information your brain can process at one time. Research suggests that the more information and distractions you receive, the harder it is for you to transfer information to your long-term memory[1].

    Fortunately, meditation can help.

    Even if you just meditate for 10 minutes per day, you’ll boost your ability to focus, which, in turn, will make it easier for you to remember important facts.

    While any amount of meditation will do something to help your memory, one study pointed out that “8 but not 4 weeks of brief, daily meditation decreased negative mood state and enhanced attention, working memory, and recognition memory as well as decreased state anxiety scores”[2].

    Therefore, if you’re looking for the most benefits, try sticking with a meditation practice for at least 8 weeks.

    However, meditation doesn’t just have to be closing your eyes and sitting in a lotus position. Some people prefer to simply take a short walk in nature. This clears and calms their mind, and still provides the all-important boost to their focus.

    2. Get Plenty of Sleep

    If you’re sleep deprived or have not been sleeping well, then it’s likely that you’re not able to remember well either. This is because sleep and memory are intimately connected.

    If you have a busy life and regularly find yourself not getting enough sleep, then this will negatively impact your cognitive abilities, including your memory.

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    If you want to learn how to improve memory, how much sleep should you be getting?

    Well, according to the National Sleep Foundation[3], you need a minimum of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. If you get this amount of sleep regularly, then within just a few days, you’ll see a tangible improvement to your ability to remember and recall things[4].

    If you want to improve memory, get plenty of sleep.

      Maintaining a proper sleep cycle is not always easy (especially when the latest Netflix series has just been released!), but if you care about improving your long and short term memory, then it’s critical that you try to get at least the recommended amount of sleep every night.

      Try these three things to naturally improve your sleep cycle:

      • Have a fixed bedtime (preferably before 10pm)
      • Don’t eat too late
      • Make sure your bedroom is as dark as possible

      Sleeping is a precious activity. It regenerates your body, clears your mind, and helps with the storing and retrieval of information.

      However, don’t sleep just yet, as I want to tell you about another great way to increase memory.

      3. Challenge Your Brain

      When was the last time you challenged your brain?

      I don’t mean challenged in the sense of overeating or under-sleeping. I’m referring to stretching your mental capabilities through things like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and memory games.

      To expand your memory bank, and to make your recall razor-sharp, you need to continually challenge your brain.

      Feedback from Lifehack readers such as yourself has suggested that brain training apps are a super-effective way of doing this. Used regularly, these apps can enhance your focus, attention span, problem-solving ability, and memory.

      There are hundreds of these apps available (most of them for free), but I recommend starting out with one of the big three:

      • Peak (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
      • Lumosity (Android/iOS, free, 10 million+ downloads)
      • Elevate (Android/iOS, free, 5 million+ downloads)

      If you normally spend a chunk of your week playing computer games, then instead of shooting and killing your enemies, why not let some of them live while you put your attention into boosting your brain power!

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      Challenging your brain will strengthen your neural pathways and enhance your mental abilities. But don’t just take my word for it; try one of the apps above and see the positive benefits for yourself.

      4. Take More Breaks

      When I think back to my days as a budding entrepreneur, I distinctly remember working all the hours under the sun—and many under the moon, too!

      At that time, I believed that breaks were for the weak, and to become wealthy and successful, I needed to shed blood, sweat, and tears.

      However, if you want to know how to improve memory, taking regular breaks is the best way to keep yourself productive, creative, and alive to opportunities. It’s also the best way to learn new information.

      Typically, when studying lots of new information, most people will spend hours reading it in an attempt to learn and remember the content as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, they’ve overlooked something.

      One 2011 study from the University of Illinois concluded that “the brain is built to detect and respond to change…and prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance”[5].

      This is based on something called the “vigilance decrement.” This can be applied to many things. For example, we often don’t notice the feeling of clothing touch our bodies because our brain becomes accustomed to the sensation. However, if you change clothes, you’ll likely notice the difference in texture and temperature for a few minutes.

      When you take a break from memorizing information, it refocuses your attention and energy, leading to increased focus overall.

      It’s similar to physical exercise. You wouldn’t attempt to train vigorously for four hours in a row. Instead, you’d take regular breaks to give your lungs, heart, and muscles adequate time to recover. Failing to do this will result in muscle cramps and overexertion.

      Basically, make sure you take regular breaks when learning new information. I recommend at least a 10-minute break every hour. (You may also want to take a look at the Pomodoro Method.)

      5. Learn a New Skill

      I love this quote, as it’s 100% true but frequently overlooked:

      “Learning never exhausts the mind.” -Leonardo da Vinci

      From my experience of helping to develop the careers of dozens of Lifehack employees, I can definitively say that participating in meaningful and purposeful activities stimulates the mind. It also reduces stress and enhances health and well-being.

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      Let me give you an example of this:

      Imagine you work for a global financial institution in one of their call centers. You take over 100 calls a day, many of them complaints. When you started the job a few months back, you were excited to be in full-time employment and working for a household name.

      Unfortunately, your initial enthusiasm quickly turned into frustration.

      The endless complaint calls began to take their toll on you. And the supervisors irritated you too, as they were far too interested in micro-managing you rather than letting you work in your own way.

      Now, in the story above, the ending could be that you put up with a job you didn’t like and led a dull and frustrated working life for years and years. However, an alternative ending is this: you channeled your dissatisfaction into learning a new skill (computer coding).

      It took you a year or two to get up to speed, but it allowed you to successfully upgrade your career, and the ongoing learning made the call center job much more bearable.

      Clearly, learning new skills gives you impetus, focus, and something to aim for. Your brain loves to learn, and you should tap into this by always seeking out new information. When learning becomes a habit, you’ll find your ability to remember and recall things effortlessly becomes a habit, too.

      If you want to know how to learn something new every day, check out this article.

      6. Start Working out

      If you’re not already working out regularly, then here’s another reason to do so:

      Exercising for 20-30 minutes three times a week will improve your long-term memory[6].

      Regular physical activities increase blood flow in your body and supplies the brain with extra oxygen and nutrients. A well-nourished brain is a well-functioning brain!

      Even if you don’t have much time, research has shown that a daily burst of 60 seconds of high-intensity exercise offered many of the benefits of the longer exercise routines[7].

      Interested in getting started?

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      Here are five different ways that will help you work out:

      • Join a gym
      • Join a sports team
      • Buy a bike
      • Take up hiking
      • Dance to your favorite music

      7. Eat Healthier Foods

      I’m sure you’ve heard the expression: “You are what you eat.”

      This applies to your brain, too.

      The food that you eat helps determine your brain’s capacity to store and recall information. A poor diet (think junk food + soda!) harms not just your physical health, but your mental health, as well.

      Fortunately, there are several foods that are especially good for your brain and your memory. These include: blueberries, celery, and dark chocolate. But any fruits, vegetables, or foods high in antioxidants will have a positive effect on your brain and memory. Here’re some ideas: 15 Brain Foods That Will Super Boost Your Brain Power

      Conversely, highly-processed foods and those loaded with sugar will have a negative impact on your memory. This is due to them providing insufficient nutrients for your brain, leading you to easily suffer from mental fatigue.

      If you want to improve your mental health, eat and drink an abundance of these for brain health:

      • Turmeric – Helps new brain cells grown
      • Broccoli – Protects the brain against damage
      • Nuts – Improves memory
      • Green tea – Enhances brain performance, memory and focus[8]
      • Fish oilFish oil supplements can increase your brain power

      Here’re more brain food options that improve memory!

      Also, remember that your brain is about 75% water, so dehydration can have a huge effect on the way your brain functions. Stay hydrated if you really want to improve memory!

      Final Thoughts

      I sincerely hope these seven memory boosting ways that I’ve covered in this article will be helpful for you.

      You don’t need to implement them all, but you can try out the ones that appeal to you.

      But, if you’re serious about dramatically improving your memory and avoiding cognitive decline, then make a start right now on adopting one or more of the ways I’ve suggested.

      More on How to Improve Memory

      Featured photo credit: Eric Ward via unsplash.com

      Reference

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