By Dr Swami Shankardev and originally published on Big Shakti.com
Did you know that chronic, unresolved stress can create an imbalance between the self-aware, rational, decision making, and problem-solving parts of your brain (the pre-frontal cortex) and the emotion and memory controlling parts of your brain (the amygdala and hippocampus)?
Long-term (chronic) stress alters your thinking, emotion, and behavior and over time changes the size, structure, and function of parts of your brain. Chronic stress also shortens the length of your chromosomes and interferes with how your genes express themselves, making you more vulnerable to disease.
How your ability to learn and remember shrinks
The hippocampus, the learning and memory center of the brain, shrinks as a result of chronic stress. Neurons die and the connections between neurons in the hippocampus become weaker, which is detrimental to your memory. Memories become fragmented making it hard for you to keep track of what you are doing. You might have brain fog and be unable to think creatively.
How your emotional, instinctive brain expands
The amygdala is concerned in processing emotions and is involved with your most primitive survival instincts. Chronic stress actually causes the amygdala to increase in size and the links between it and the most evolved part of your brain, the cortex, to shrink. A bigger amygdala is correlated with aggression. Your emotions become stronger than your ability to think clearly. You become more impulsive, angry and impatient. Your emotions can then easily take over and drive you to react to life circumstances in ways that do not serve you or others well. You will feel overwhelmed and out of control.
For example, if you are chronically stressed and your child is misbehaving, you are more likely to react emotionally and aggressively, screaming back at them in a way that you may later regret. You need your cortex to over-ride your emotions so that you don’t scream back, rather than finding positive and creative ways to handle the situation.
How your thinking brain is destabilized
It is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites.
The prefrontal cortex is the most evolved part of your brain. It subserves higher-order cognitive functions. It enables you to stop and think in a crisis, to access your memories, experience, and wisdom, and it can do this in a fraction of a second if it is turned on and functioning well. This enables you to assess your situation and intuit how to react appropriately to your treasured but screaming child.
The prefrontal cortex enables you to gain perspective and to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to have empathy. Chronic stress tends to make you more narcissistic. When your pre-frontal cortex is overstressed, you can’t think clearly and tend to catastrophize, to see things as being a lot worse than they are. You lose your capacity for objectivity and insight. You might displace your blame inappropriately onto others, rather than taking responsibility yourself.
Relaxation rebalances your brain
The key is to remember that if you are feeling any of the above symptoms of chronic stress that stress has affected your brain and how you react to life. If you can better manage your stress, your brain can grow new neurons and rebalance itself.
There are several things you can do to rebalance your brain. Of these, relaxation is the most primary and most important. Learning how to relax and practicing relaxation in a busy, stressful world is vital for a long, healthy and happy life. If you can’t relax, chronic stress accumulates and actually turns off your ability to relax and a whole part of your brain, the part that enables you to sleep, digest food, heal, and play. When you learn how to relax and practice relaxation on a regular basis, you gradually undo the damage caused by chronic stress and reset your brain systems.
Other things you can do
There are several other things you can do to rebalance your brain:
- Exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells. It reduces stress hormones in your blood and releases feel-good hormones, such as endorphins.
- Ensure that you don’t eat too much and practice time-restricted eating (eating within an 8 to 12-hour window) and intermittent fasting. Also, make sure you are not eating too much sugar. It is interesting to note that stress increases our craving for sugar which further stresses the body.
- Get plenty of sleep, somewhere between 7 to 9 hours a night.
- Saunas, hot baths with Epsom salts, or cryotherapy (cold immersion) can help to remove stress.
- Stimulate your brain with adventures, self-education and being open to new life experiences.
- Socializing with family and friends and having fun releases oxytocin, the love hormone, which also reduces the level of stress hormones circulating in your body.
Small amounts of stress are good for you
Small amounts of healthy stress, called hormesis, is good for you. Exercise, fasting, and saunas are forms of gentle, healthy stress that have a positive impact on your body and mind. Taking on challenges and learning how to face the difficulties of life helps you to grow into a strong, capable, confident person, especially if you are rested and practicing relaxation.
Dr Swami Shankardev will visiting Manly Yoga to lead two fascinating seminars; the first will be held on Saturday 7th September and is titled Managing the Ego. For bookings and further information click here.
The second seminar with Dr Swami Shankardev will be held on 26 October titled The Liberating Journey from Ego to Self – from Chaos to Order for bookings and further information click here.