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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.
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    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 June 6, 2019

    Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

    Science Says Silence Is Much More Important To Our Brains Than We Think

    In 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board ran a campaign that used silence as a marketing ‘product’. They sought to entice people to visit Finland and experience the beauty of this silent land. They released a series of photographs of single figures in the nature and used the slogan “Silence, Please”. A tag line was added by Simon Anholt, an international country branding consultant, “No talking, but action.”

    Eva Kiviranta the manager of the social media for VisitFinland.com said: “We decided, instead of saying that it’s really empty and really quiet and nobody is talking about anything here, let’s embrace it and make it a good thing”.

    Finland may be on to something very big. You could be seeing the very beginnings of using silence as a selling point as silence may be becoming more and more attractive. As the world around becomes increasingly loud and cluttered you may find yourself seeking out the reprieve that silent places and silence have to offer. This may be a wise move as studies are showing that silence is much more important to your brains than you might think.

    Regenerated brain cells may be just a matter of silence.

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       A 2013 study on mice published in the journal Brain, Structure and Function used differed types of noise and silence and monitored the effect the sound and silence had on the brains of the mice.[1] The silence was intended to be the control in the study but what they found was surprising. The scientists discovered that when the mice were exposed to two hours of silence per day they developed new cells in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning.

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      The growth of new cells in the brain does not necessarily translate to tangible health benefits. However, in this instance, researcher Imke Kirste says that the cells appeared to become functioning neurons.

      “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system.”

      In this sense silence can quite literally grow your brain.

      The brain is actively internalizing and evaluating information during silence

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        A 2001 study defined a “default mode” of brain function that showed that even when the brain was “resting” it was perpetually active internalizing and evaluating information.

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        Follow-up research found that the default mode is also used during the process of self-reflection. In 2013, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Joseph Moran et al. wrote, the brain’s default mode network “is observed most closely during the psychological task of reflecting on one’s personalities and characteristics (self-reflection), rather than during self-recognition, thinking of the self-concept, or thinking about self-esteem, for example.

        “When the brain rests it is able to integrate internal and external information into “a conscious workspace,” said Moran and colleagues.

        When you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows your conscious workspace to process things. During these periods of silence, your brain has the freedom it needs to discover its place in your internal and external world.

        The default mode helps you think about profound things in an imaginative way.

        As Herman Melville once wrote,[2]

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        “All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence.”

        Silence relieves stress and tension.

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          It has been found that noise can have a pronounced physical effect on our brains resulting in elevated levels of stress hormones. The sound waves reach the brain as electrical signals via the ear. The body reacts to these signals even if it is sleeping. It is thought that the amygdalae (located in the temporal lobes of the brain) which is associated with memory formation and emotion is activated and this causes a release of stress hormones. If you live in a consistently noisy environment that you are likely to experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

          A study that was published in 2002 in Psychological Science (Vol. 13, No. 9) examined the effects that the relocation of Munich’s airport had on children’s health and cognition. Gary W. Evans, a professor of human ecology at Cornell University notes that children who are exposed to noise develop a stress response that causes them to ignore the noise. What is of interest is that these children not only ignored harmful stimuli they also ignored stimuli that they should be paying attention to such as speech. 

          “This study is among the strongest, probably the most definitive proof that noise – even at levels that do not produce any hearing damage – causes stress and is harmful to humans,” Evans says.[3]

          Silence seems to have the opposite effect of the brain to noise. While noise may cause stress and tension silence releases tension in the brain and body. A study published in the journal Heart discovered that two minutes of silence can prove to be even more relaxing than listening to “relaxing” music. They based these findings of changes they noticed in blood pressure and blood circulation in the brain.[4]

          Silence replenishes our cognitive resources.

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            The effect that noise pollution can have on cognitive task performance has been extensively studied. It has been found that noise harms task performance at work and school. It can also be the cause of decreased motivation and an increase in error making.  The cognitive functions most strongly affected by noise are reading attention, memory and problem solving.

            Studies have also concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills.

            But it is not all bad news. It is possible for the brain to restore its finite cognitive resources. According to the attention restoration theory when you are in an environment with lower levels of sensory input the brain can ‘recover’ some of its cognitive abilities. In silence the brain is able to let down its sensory guard and restore some of what has been ‘lost’ through excess noise.[5]

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            Summation

            Traveling to Finland may just well be on your list of things to do. There you may find the silence you need to help your brain. Or, if Finland is a bit out of reach for now, you could simply take a quiet walk in a peaceful place in your neighborhood. This might prove to do you and your brain a world of good.

            Featured photo credit: Angelina Litvin via unsplash.com

            Reference

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