Updated: Jun 27, 2022
It is well-known that too much stress can lead to problems such as headaches, chest pains, anxiety, depression, overeating, outbursts of anger, and on and on. What is less known is the fact that excessive stress can also cause serious (and sometimes even permanent) damage to our brain.
In order to understand this better, we first need to differentiate between normal and excessive stress. The normal stress is the one that is generated to help us deal with danger or respond to emergencies that happen in our daily lives. You feel that kind of stress when you have to quickly react to a car cutting into your lane, when you listen to your child crying for help, and even when you have to speak in public. Excessive stress happens when we can’t give our brains a break, making it stay in constant “fight or flight” mode. You feel that kind of stress when you can’t stop thinking about the bills you have to pay, when you feel overwhelmed with something you have to do, or when you live in constant fear (just like the pandemic-associated fears we’ve been living with for the past few years).
When we fail to give our brains a break, they become less effective; and worse: if this situation happens for a prolonged period of time, real damage can happen. When the amygdala (our fear center) is constantly firing, we increase the production of cortisol (the stress hormone) which leads to problems with memory, focus, learning, digestion, sleeping and even a reduction in our immune system - just to name a few. In more chronic cases, this can also lead to permanent changes in the brain structure, causing the development of mental illness on an otherwise healthy brain.
I know this can be scary, but awareness of the situation is a critical step if you are to bring real change into your life. The good news is that there is an entire world of mindfulness practices that can help us regain control of our lives. With so many tools at our disposal, I am positive that there is a good tool for you. While there are thousands of books written on this topic, I will share my favorite ideas to get you started:
Practice gratitude. It doesn’t matter your situation, there are always things to be grateful about. And did you know that being grateful helps lower cortisol levels in our body by about 23%? An easy way to get started is by writing down (on a notebook, not on a device) 3 things that you are grateful for at the end of everyday.
Exercise frequently. Exercise releases tension and provides an immediate cleanse on our psychology and physiology. You don’t need to commit to an hour at the gym, but you do need to do something that is strenuous enough to provide your body with the full benefits of exercise. Welcome the sweat!
Meditate or try different breathing techniques. Deep breathing techniques and meditation are guaranteed ways to relieve stress - and are easy to include into your everyday routine. Start small: sit quietly for 5 minutes per day and simply pay attention to your breath. To really help yourself, do so when your house is quiet (personally, I prefer to wake up a little before my family does to have some “me” time to meditate).
Drink lots of water (minimum 2 liters a day). Every organ in the human body relies on water to function, and the brain is no exception. In fact, 75% of brain tissue is water! With that in mind, it is not surprising to learn that researchers have linked dehydration to depression and anxiety. The best way to get started is by drinking 1 liter of water first thing in the morning. Not only that is half of what you need, but also that helps your body detox from all the cleansing that happens while you sleep.
Eat better. We all like to indulge in comfort food, but that should be the exception, not the rule. Junk food - or any food that does not nurture our body cells - creates tension in the brain. Conversely, healthy foods like fruits, nuts, greens, and vegetables allow the brain to settle down, refocus, reframe, rebuild, and reorganize. Do yourself a favor: buy a potent blender and start your mornings with a power juice (after you drink your water).
Building a new habit takes time - but the effort is worth it. And just for additional motivation: over the past years I have added each one of the habits above into my daily routine, so I know it can be done. Choose one and stick to it; once it becomes a habit, move into the next one, and the next one. Within a few months you can gift yourself with a mindfulness practice of your own. Your brain will thank you a lot for that.