Managing stress hormones to protect our brain
It's no secret that the fight and flight response our bodies have as part of our DNA can quite often get stuck in overdrive. No longer does this response, which causes the body to pump out hormones to help us flee danger, kick in only in life threatening situations. For many of us, daily life keeps these hormones flowing at top speed. Gradually, as we age, the overload of stress hormones can take a toll on our cardiovascular system or/or our brain. Heart attacks, strokes and memory issues can be the result.
Yet some stress is necessary and good. According to an article on The Franklin Institute Online, "...an appropriate stress response is a healthy and necessary part of life. One of the things it does is to release norepinephrine...(which) is needed to create new memories. It improves mood. Problems feel more like challenges, which encourages creative thinking."
According to the article, however, chronic over-secretion of stress hormones, particularly cortisol, "adversely affects brain function, especially memory. Too much cortisol can prevent the brain from laying down a new memory, or from accessing already existing memories."
The article emphasizes that stress in itself is not bad. Stress hormones are not bad. It's the excess stress hormones that do the damage. What's the take away from this? That stress management is the key to lowering the damage levels of stress hormones.
Are some of our daily stressors avoidable?
I believe that most of us can lower our stress levels if we try.
- Number one in my view is attitude. Do we view life as the proverbial glass that is half empty? Can we switch that, with practice, to viewing the glass as half full? If so, most of us can lower our stress levels simply by changing how we view what happens in our daily lives in a more relaxed and positive manner.
- Get rid of perfectionism. I know that I can be more stressed than I need to be simply because I think I have to do everything right now and do it perfectly. Perfectionism can lead us in an even more stressful cycle as we fail to meet our own standards.
- What really matters? Once you've figured that out, prioritize. Is a perfectly clean house your biggest concern or can you settle for picked up and a once over cleaning? Lowering your own standards in some areas can lower your stress and make you more effective in others.
- If you are a caregiver, as many readers are, give yourself a break. You can be a good caregiver and still care for yourself. In fact, you will be a better caregiver if you do so.
- Do something you enjoy. Read a good book, take a quiet walk, have coffee with friends, get away from the computer. Anything that you really enjoy should help your body heal from the negative effects of constant stress.
- Get rid of "mental clutter." For me, checking small things off a long list can help me feel less stressed. We're all different, but try to find a way to get rid of little things picking at your brain. Sometimes just writing things down in an orderly fashion can help.
- Appreciate wisdom gained through the years rather than scolding yourself for each little memory slip. Know that you have a great deal to offer because of your experience. If you are caring for an elder, appreciate the positive aspects of the elder's life journey. He or she may have much to offer if you take time to listen.
- Keep your brain nimble by reading, communicating, learning and, if you enjoy them, memory games. Mostly, try to love others and enjoy those who love you. Love can be one of the healthiest, stress lowering emotions available. Love can heal.
Nothing we do will stop time. As we age, most of us will find our bodies aren't as efficient in some ways as when we were younger. But we still have much to contribute. By learning to manage stress - to kick back rather than staying stuck in fight or flight - we may be able to not only live longer, but live better. That's a challenge worth accepting.