Almost everyone knows that stress is bad for their health. It does odd things to our bodies — it causes headaches, chest pains, fatigue, and digestive issues. The faster pace of life today means more stress for a lot of people.
That feeling you are overwhelmed, overloaded and struggling to cope with the demands of life has also been linked to early toll on thinking ability.
A study of more than 2,000 people, most of them in their 40s, found that participants with the highest levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol performed worse on tests of memory, organization, visual perception and attention.
Stress is the body’s natural defence against danger. It’s a ‘fight-or-flight response’ to anything that may harm us — physically or emotionally.
When your body perceives danger, it releases stress hormones (cortisol) to prepare systems to evade or confront danger.
When you are stressed, cortisol levels increase and impacts your ability to think clearly. The stresses of daily our lives can take a toll on the brain for the worse. Stressful events and experiences throughout life can impact the brain decades later. But it’s never too early to be mindful of reducing stress.
Studies have shown that the stress hormone cortisol might be linked with degrading memory and poor thinking skills in middle-aged adults. “Stress absolutely affects memory,” says clinical psychologist and behaviorist Dr. Jennifer Guttman.
The Journal Neurology says that people with higher levels of cortisol in their blood had impaired memories, and lower brain volume.
“Cortisol affects many different functions so it is important to fully investigate how high levels of the hormone may affect the brain,” said study author Justin B. Echouffo-Tcheugui, MD, Ph.D., of Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass.
The study concluded that “Higher serum cortisol was associated with lower brain volumes and impaired memory in asymptomatic younger to middle-aged adults, with the association being evident particularly in women.”
Money, work and relationships are the biggest stressors. But anything that poses a real or perceived threat to your body can cause stress. It’s not uncommon to feel forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress.
An important message to remember from the study is that when challenges come your way, getting frustrated is counterproductive — not just to achieving your aims but to your capacity to be productive.
By all means, take a chance on something you want. Your body can deal with short-burst of stress every now and then. “When someone is stressed, cortisol is released to help them get through that event as a chemical boost for survival,” says psychologist Dr Paul DePompo.
Cortisol is important when it comes to keeping you alive. It’s necessary for life — so it’s not all bad. What you have to stay away from is high levels of cortisol which can lead to short-term memory loss or even worse mental or physical ill-health.
Protect yourself from damaging stress
To reduce stress in your life, the authors of the effects of stress on the brain recommends incorporating relaxing activities into our lives.
Mr Echouffo-Tcheugui, who authored the study says, “Our research detected memory loss and brain shrinkage in middle-aged people before symptoms started to show, so it’s important for people to find ways to reduce stress, such as getting enough sleep, engaging in moderate exercise, incorporating relaxation techniques into their daily lives, or asking their doctor about their cortisol levels and taking a cortisol-reducing medication if needed.”
If you are worried about the effects of stress on your brain, embrace regular physical activity — an important behaviour that can maintain brain and body health. Help yourself to tackle chronic stress.
Manage it before it gets to exhaustion — which leads to cognitive impairment that includes issues with attention and working memory. Identify and reduce stress triggers. And do more of what makes you calm.
“Within six months to a year, regular aerobic activity such as walking an hour a day five out of seven days a week not only makes the hippocampus larger and improves memory but also improves decision-making by improving blood flow..,” says Bruce McEwen, an Alfred E Mirsky professor of neurosciences and behaviour.
Many people don’t take stress seriously compared to physical health concerns. Stress is a health challenge that can do more harm over time. Manage it to improve your memory. Even if you’ve been under a lot of stress in recent times, it’s still not too late to do something about it. The brain does have the capacity for repairing.
Originally published on Medium.
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