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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 March 30, 2020

    How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

    How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

    You may have heard someone say they are “totally right brained” or that they’re “a left brained person.”

    There is a pervasive myth that’s been making its rounds for over a century: people have two hemispheres of their brains, and if they have a dominant left brain, they’re more analytical; and if they have a dominant right brain, they are more creative.

    Before we go debunking this theory and then giving some tips for how people can access their creative brain centers, let’s first take a look at where the left brain/right brain lateralization theory comes from.

    The Left Brain/Right Brain Lateralization Theory

    In the 1800s, scientists discovered that when patients injured one side of their brains, certain skills were lost.[1] Scientists linked those different skills to one side of the brain or the other. Thus began the left brain/right brain myth that continues to this day.

    Then, in the 1960s and 70s, Roger W. Sperry led 16 operations that cut the corpus callosum (the largest region that connects both brain hemispheres together) in order to try to treat patients’ epilepsy. Sperry wrote about the differences in the two hemispheres as a result of those surgeries.[2]

    Sperry’s work was popularized in 1973 with a New York Times article about his lateralization theory—that people were either right brained (read: logical) or left brained (read: creative). From here, Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work and numerous other publications spread the right brain/left brain myth.

    Debunking the Right Brain/Left Brain Myth

    If anything, the lateralization theory of the brain is a gross exaggeration. It is true that people have two hemispheres of their brains. It is also true that there are differences in the composition of those two hemispheres.

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    However, the hemispheres are actually much more interconnected than Sperry’s work initially made it seem.

    In a 2013 study,[3] scientists scanned over 1000 people’s brains, checking for lateralization. They confirmed that certain brain functions occur predominately in one hemisphere or the other but that, in reality, the brain is actually much more interconnected and complex than the right brain/left brain lateralization theory makes it seem.[4][5]

    A New Metaphor for Right Brain/Left Brain

    How do we get past this right brain/left brain myth?

    First, let’s look at what contemporary cognitive science says about brain regions, and creative and logical modes of thinking.

    My background is as an improviser and improv researcher. I wrote Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition and think looking at improvisation and the brain can shed light on a new model for talking about unlocking the brain’s creative potential.

    Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have shown that while trained improvisers improvise (musically on a keyboard, rapping, and comedic improvisation) an interesting shift happens in their brain activity. [6]

    A region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases in activity and creative language centers such as the medial prefrontal cortex increase in activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked with conscious thoughts—that inner voice that tells you not to say something or criticizes you when you do.

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    The medial prefrontal cortex is among the brain regions linked with creativity. So, instead of thinking about right brain and left brain, perhaps it’s more current and correct to think about more specific brain regions instead of hemispheres. Perhaps, it’s more useful to think about which activities and strategies will allow us to inhibit our dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes and allow our medial prefrontal cortexes to flourish.

    How to Enhance Your “Right Brain” — Creativity

    Whether we’re talking about right brain versus left brain, creative versus logical, or medial prefrontal cortex versus dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, we still know enough to talk about strategies to tap into your creative brain’s full potential.

    So, now that we’ve dispelled the right brain/left brain myth and looked at a more contemporary, cognitive neuroscience theory of brain regions and creativity centers, let’s look at how to tap into the potential of your creative brain.

    1. Performing Arts

    One way to tap into your creative brain centers is to participate in the performing arts. Whether you improvise, act, or dance, the performing arts allow you an embodied experience that will help you snap out of your habitual, logical thoughts.

    Another benefit of the performing arts is that it changes your attention. Attention and creativity are inextricably linked. When we improvise, act, or dance, we have to focus intently on our fellow performers. This means we are forced to focus less on our conscious, logical thoughts. This frees us up for more creative thinking and expression.[7]

    One of the conclusions of my research on improvisation is that focusing intensely on fellow improvisers and the task at hand makes it more likely that we experience a flow state. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi,[8] a Professor of Psychology and Management defines flow as an optimal psychological state when our skills match the difficulty of the task at hand. Our perception of time is altered as we get into the zone and become more present and in the moment during our chosen activity.[9]

    A flow state is a creative state. It’s the opposite of crunching numbers and forcing ourselves to work out a problem with the conscious regions of our brain. So, get up, improvise, act, or dance to access your creativity.

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    2. Visual Art

    Art teacher Betty Edwards[10] wrote a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Here again, we see that a shift in our attention can lead us to an increase in our creative thinking.

    Edwards’ book gives art students tricks to shift the way they see the world. For example, one exercise encourages students to literally flip whatever it is they’re drawing upside down before they draw it. This forces budding artists to literally see the object in a new way. This shift allows them to focus more on the individual components and patterns of the object, which allows them to draw it better.

    Shifting how we see things is another way we can access our creative brain centers. Take an art class to shut off your conscious, critical thoughts and start seeing things from a new, more creative perspective.

    3. Zone Out

    If there’s one thing creativity doesn’t like, it’s being coerced.

    I think we’ve all felt that awful feeling of trying to force ourselves to be creative. When we force it, we’re really trying to force our logical brain regions to be creative. It’s like asking your gardener to perform your appendix surgery. It’s just not what she does.

    Instead, stop forcing it. Take a break. Take a long walk or a relaxing bath or shower. Let your mind wander.

    Whatever you do, stop forcing it. This break lets your creative centers rise to the surface of your attention and get heard.

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    4. Practice Mindfulness

    The final trick to start accessing your so-called right brain is to practice mindfulness.

    Now, there’s a lot of different ways to go about mindfulness. You can take a more physical approach with a yoga class. Or you can try meditating to become more aware and in tune with your thoughts and feelings: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

    You could also try to incorporate fun mindfulness exercises[11] into your everyday routine like forcing yourself to go on detours or pretending you’re a detective who needs to examine people and places closely.

    Any way you do it, mindfulness exercises and training can help you become better versed in how your brain works and what your normal thought process is like on a day-to-day basis. If we’re ever going to reach our optimal creativity, we have to become an expert in how our individual brain functions. Mindfulness is one way to become your very own brain expert.

    Mindfulness also has added benefits like calming us, slowing our breathing, and helping us become more observant, which are also great ways to start tapping into our creative potential.

    Final Thoughts

    So, it may not be correct to say that our right brain is our creative brain, but it is still a valid pursuit to try to optimize our creative brain centers.

    The key to do so is to relax, become observant, shift your perspective, move your body, try something new, and, whatever you do, don’t force it.

    Creativity can feel slippery. It can abandon us when we need it most, but by slowing down and looking at things from a new perspective, we can give ourselves a better chance of tapping into our ultimate creativity, even if that doesn’t exactly mean our “right brain.”

    More Tips on Boosting Creativity

    Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

    Reference

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