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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 January 13, 2020

    7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

    7 Simple Brain Training Habits to Boost Your Brain Power

    Throughout the ages, there have been many beliefs in various tricks to boosting brain power, yet when held up to scientific scrutiny, most of these beliefs don’t add up.

    When I was a child, for example, my mother told me if I ate fish it would make me more intelligent. Of course, there’s no scientific proof this is true.

    Today, there is a myriad of games you can download to your phone that claims to improve your brain’s cognitive skills. While we are still waiting for a conclusive scientific verdict on these, recent studies by neuroscientists at Western University in Ontario[1] and researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia appear to contradict these claims.[2]

    So, how can we really boost our brain power? Well, it turns out there are a number of simple things you can do that will improve the function of your brain. Here are seven to get you started.

    1. Do Your Most Difficult Tasks in the Morning

    Our brains work at their best when they are fresh and energized after a good night’s sleep.

    If you have a task to do that requires a lot of thought and focus, the best time to do that task would be first thing in the morning when your brain is at its freshest.

    This is one of the reasons why checking email first thing the morning is not a good idea. You are wasting your brain’s best hours on a simple task that can be done when your brain is not at its freshest

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    Throughout the day, you will find the amount of time you can focus for will fall. Your decision-making abilities will also begin to weaken as the day progresses. This is called “decision fatigue” and that means the decisions you make later in the day will not be as good as the decisions you make earlier in the day.

    It’s far better to do your most difficult, creative tasks early taking advantage of your brain’s higher energy levels.

    Try to avoid meetings first thing in the morning and schedule work that needs higher creative energy and concentration.

    2. Get Enough Breaks

    Our brains are not very good at maintaining concentration and focus for much more than an hour. Once you go beyond a certain amount of time, doing focused work, you will find yourself making more and more mistakes. This is a sign your brain is tired and needs a break.

    Taking the right kind of break is important. Switching from working on a complex spreadsheet to checking your social media feeds is not going to give your brain the right kind of break. Instead, get up from your desk and head outside. If that is not possible, go to the nearest window and look outside.

    Your brain needs a break from the screen, not just the spreadsheet, so leave your phone behind so you are not tempted to look at it and just savour the view.

    3. Read Books, not Social Media Feeds

    There are no shortcuts to improved knowledge and you are certainly not going to improve your general knowledge about anything useful by reading social media feeds. Instead, make reading books a regular habit.

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    When you read good quality books, you increase your ability to use the knowledge you learn to solve problems as your brain will apply the knowledge you learned to existing situations.

    Learn about economic theory, history and psychology. All these topics have real practical applications for us all today.

    4. Exercise Regularly

    Humans did not evolve to be stationary animals. You need to move.

    Had our ancestors spent their days sat around, they would not have survived very long. To survive and find food, our ancestors had to keep moving. Our brains have evolved to function at their best when we are exercised.

    In his book, Brain Rules, Prof.John Medina explains when we exercise, we increase the amount of oxygen in our brains and this helps to sharpen our brain’s functions.

    In studies, when a previously sedentary group of people began a light exercise programme, their cognitive skills improve as well as reaction times and quantitive skills.

    This is why you are more likely to find the solution to a problem when you are walking somewhere or exercising rather than when you are sat at a desk in front of a screen.

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    5. Get Enough of the Right Food

    You probably have experienced the afternoon slump at some point in your life. This is when you feel tired and fatigued in the mid-afternoon. This is a result of the carbohydrates you ate at lunchtime, stimulating your body to produce insulin which then causes a drop in your blood sugar levels.

    When you go into an afternoon slump, concentrating for long periods become almost impossible and you just want to curl up and go to sleep.

    To prevent the afternoon slump, try to eat a protein-rich lunch such as a tuna or chicken salad without pasta, rice or bread. Keep some healthy snacks such as mixed nuts and dried bananas around your workspace and when you feel a little peckish, eat a few of these.

    Not only will you avoid the afternoon slump, but you will also improve your overall general health and feel a lot more energetic.

    6. Drink Enough Water

    Your brain is made up of about 70% water, so without enough water, your brain will not function at its best.

    When you are not drinking enough water, you will find your ability to concentrate, make decisions and stay alert will reduce. You will feel sleepy and lack energy. Your brain functions at its best when it is properly hydrated.

    The solution is to keep a large bottle of water at your work station and sip regularly from it throughout the day. This will increase the number of trips you need to make to the bathroom which is a good thing. It will keep you moving and taking regular breaks from your screen.

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    7. Don’t Deprive Yourself of Sleep

    You probably don’t need a long scientific study to convince you that if you are not getting enough sleep, you are not going to function at your best.

    You just need to go a couple of days without getting enough sleep and you feel your abilities reduce. Your decision-making skills become erratic, your energy levels drop and your ability to stay focused on your work diminishes.

    If you want to improve your brain’s ability to function, then start with getting enough sleep. The number of hours you need will depend on your own circadian rhythms, so find what works best for you.

    Six to eight hours is usually enough for most people so make sure you are hitting that number of hours per night as a minimum.

    The Bottom Line

    Improving our brain power is not difficult. All we need to do is develop a few simple habits such as exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and eating the right foods.

    These seven tips will go a long way to helping you to become more alert, able to focus longer and make decisions. All simple common sense tricks anyone can use.

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    Featured photo credit: Nicole Wolf via unsplash.com

    Reference

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