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Stress: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (A Coming Back to Our Senses Installment)

By Karen Spencer September 03, 2023 Health and Fitness

We all want to have a healthy brain, don’t we?

As we age, our ability to think clearly, focus and remember becomes more of a concern to many of us; especially if we have a mindset that believes a deteriorating brain is just part of aging and out of your control.

My friend, I want to encourage and convince you that our brain health is actually very much in our control.

Neurologists continue to research concrete steps we can take and lifestyle changes we can make that will support our beautiful brains and prevent cognitive decline.

If you want to live your highest, best, most fulfilling life, start with your brain and come to your SENSES.

This is my 5th article about taking actionable steps to support our brain health and prevent cognitive decline. I invited you to come along side me in getting a brain makeover. I am using the acronym SENSES to look at the foundational areas that have the greatest impact on our minds (Sleep, Exercise, Nutrition, Stress management, Eliminating toxins and Self-care).

The Trifesta

Thus far I have written about what I call the Trifecta: Sleep, Exercise and Nutrition. Each of these areas have been proven to be the ‘game changers’ in preventing cognitive decline and rescuing our brain from a downward spiral.

Our learning, memory and cognitive functions are all associated with these super important lifestyle areas.

Research shows that neuroplasticity actually occurs when we make healthy lifestyle changes. The importance of the trifecta’s impact on neuroplasticity can’t be overstated. It means it is possible to change dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving and develop new mindsets, new memories, new skills, and new abilities.

Let’s Delve into Stress

In this article, we are going to be looking at a 4th area that impacts our brain health and is instrumental in the process of neuroplasticity. It’s that all too infamous area called ‘Stress’.

The reference to ‘Stress’ is ubiquitous these days. Stress is, and has regularly been referred to, as the main culprit in our health issues. Concerns about stress and its negative impact go back for many years.

In fact, according to a Time Magazine’s 1983 cover story, ‘Stress’ was called “The Epidemic of the Eighties” and referred to as “our leading health problem.” And I think we would all agree that the health relationship with stress has progressively worsened since then.

You may have heard that today stress is responsible for anywhere from 65% to 90% of doctor’s visits.

So, how about you? Have you been experiencing much stress of late? Has it impacted your health? Has it messed with your mind? Do you use the word ‘stress’ often when describing your life?

To better understand the impact of stress on our brains, and before we overly demonize this much written about culprit of our poor health, let’s first examine the good, the bad, and the ugly.

That right there is some good stuff that is connected with stress.

Stress Is a Natural and Normal Part of Life

Our bodies were designed to experience stress and react to it. Stress keeps us alert and away from danger.

And although many of us complain about stress messing with our minds, stress is not all bad for our brains.

In his book, Brain Training Revolution, Paul Bendheim, MD, writes, “… it may surprise you to know that stress is actually essential to brain health. Neuroscientists have produced groundbreaking work on stress and its impact on the brain, and they’ve discovered that, in order to learn, we need a certain amount of short-term tolerable stress to stay sharp and grow our brains.”

Stress has even been shown to lessen the possibility of mental health conditions later on.

Who knew? Moderate stress can actually improve brain performance by strengthening the connection between neurons in the brain. This helps to improve memory and attention span in order to make us more productive overall. This is why some people tend to perform “better when they are under pressure.”

I admit that was a big reason why I used to get my term papers turned in on time. That deadline that seemed to ‘stress me out’ was actually what motivated me to get it done.

Can you think of stress you have had lately that you would categorize as good or moderate stress? No doubt you thought of something that was manageable, predictable, short-term, and/or something you could get support for.

For example: Writing this article caused me some limited stress, but it was manageable and for a short amount of time.

When Good Stress Turns to Bad

But when the ‘short amount of time’ turns to ‘long amount of time’ we begin to see our stress, our worry and our concerns turn to anxiety. Then our good stress transitions to bad stress, and we may experience these types of symptoms.

  • Worrying constantly
  • Racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Feeling disorganized
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Poor judgment
  • Always seeing the negative side.

It’s easy to see how stress, if not quickly acted upon, can lead to mood problems like depression and anxiety. And prolonged stress is one of the biggest drains on your energy levels.

We have all known people who, while under chronic stress, struggle to get out of bed in the morning to complete even the simplest of tasks. And that’s when stress gets ugly.

When Stress Gets Ugly

Excessive stress has shown to “alter brain cells, brain structure and brain function.”

So being stressed not only stresses us out, but it can lead to big time problems like Alzheimer’s. Ugly Stress can negatively affect both your short-term focus and your long-term mental and neurological health.

Here are some ways ugly stress can impact the brain:

So I suspect that about now you’re thinking, “OMG, Karen you are totally stressing me out and maybe even shrinking my brain!”

You are no doubt saying, “Don’t just tell us about these awful outcomes and gory details associated with chronic stress; explain what the heck we can do to prevent it, manage it or master it!”

How to Manage Our Stress

Yes, I agree, we all want to know what we can do, don’t we? So, let’s get serious and come up with a personal plan that we will act on!

Start with Awareness

Pay attention to the impact stress is currently having on your life. Determine what things are your frequent stressors.

Create a Belief

Create a mindset that supports the belief that you can make decisions and take actions to minimize your stress, thus supporting your beautiful brain.

Make a Decision

Once you have the belief, then you must decide to take action to prevent, support or lessen the harmful stress in your life.

Create a Plan

Develop habits and routines for a healthy brain lifestyle. Set specifics goals to make yourself accountable. Document your progress: Plenty of Sleep, Regular exercise, Healthy nutrition, daily breathing exercises, and Meditation. And don’t forget about a self-care plan. Treat yourself to massages, retreats, therapy groups, nature walks, vacations, or relaxing breaks throughout your day.

Consider getting a health coach or a medical professional to help you be more successful.

And Avoid: screen time, too many stimulants, too much junk food, and too much disturbing news.

Put a Plan into Practice

As you become aware of the stress; pay attention to the thought(s) that come with it. We will often see that our thoughts are what become the actual cause of our anxiety and not necessarily the stress itself.

Stressor Example: My husband is yelling at me.

My Thought: My husband doesn’t love me, and he will leave me.

Stressor Example: My doctors says tests show I have high blood pressure.

My Thought: I will die of a heart attack and my kids won’t have a mom.

Stressor Example: I have rent to pay, and I don’t have any money.

My Thought: I will be evicted and become homeless.

Stressor Example: Four of my family members had Alzheimer’s.

My Thought: I will get Alzheimer’s.

I know, some of these examples are a bit farfetched, but I suspect most of us can come up with our own ‘crazy thoughts’ examples.

My point is for us to begin to see that the stressor itself is not always our problem; often it’s our thoughts. And once we start to become more aware of our thoughts about our stressors, we can begin to question them. And once we begin to question our thoughts, this is often the very spot we can be most productive in alleviating our current stress.

For example, next time you have a stressor in your life and an anxiety-producing thought that goes with it, then ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this thought helpful for me?
  • Is this thought true? (And if you follow Byron Katie’s Work you will be familiar with her next question.)
  • Can you absolutely know that this thought is true?
  • What is this stress trying to teach me?
  • How can I use this experience to help me to grow or heal?
  • Is there another thought that might be more true and more helpful for me?
  • How will I use this stress for my brain’s benefit, rather than detriment?

Once we pivot from the external stress being the problem, to our internal thoughts being the problem, we have more power to change our behavior and our reality.

Remember this mantra: ‘My thoughts create my reality.’ Ask yourself what is the reality you want to create.

Decide to Take Action

Remember, knowing about stress, and even coming up with a plan, isn’t the same as taking consistent small steps.

Here is the part where we take action to alleviate the negative thoughts and the stress.

  • Ask my husband to talk about what is troubling him.
  • Read about high blood pressure and the steps I can take.
  • Speak with the apartment manager and discuss a payment plan.
  • Come to my SENSES and adopt healthy lifestyle changes to prevent cognitive decline.

And taking action can absolutely include contacting a professional to help you through your stress.

The more proactive and intentional we are with the stressors of life the closer we get to mastering them.

You may want to check out this video by Prof. Suresh Bada Math for additional steps in helping to manage your stress.

I am aware that many of you readers are dealing with chronic stress that does not have simple answers. Many are caregivers that are exhausted and reaching their end. Others are crushed and broken hearted; dealing with grief, in constant pain, and lonely to the core. I pray that you search for and find the support you need.

Take care of your beautiful brain, my friends.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Is stress affecting your health? I would love to hear your tips and suggestions to alleviate, manage or master your stress.

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The Author

Karen is a retired college professor, a Certified Health Coach, a Brain Health Coach, a writer, a speaker and a teacher. Her mission is to educate, inspire and influence women 55 and older to step up, dream big and become healthier, happier, and more fulfilled.

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