Can Stress Shrink Your Brain?

When you’re dealing with a lot of stress in your life, the last thing you need to hear is “just stop being stressed! It’s bad for your health!”.

But we rarely get practical advice on how to actually help our bodies while we’re under stress. For me, just being told “don’t do that” is wildly unhelpful.

This is why I love the work by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. Her book The Upside of Stress looks at how stress can benefit our health…if we simply change our perspective.

In her research, she has found that many of the health problems connected with stress actually come from our belief that stress is bad for us. Stress is only harmful if we believe it’s harmful. This may seem overly simplistic, but her research is very impressive.

So, if the research is right, then we have some work to do collectively. Instead of stressing out about feeling stressed out, let’s look at the symptoms of stress (increased heart rate, etc) a little differently.

Notice that your stress response is giving your body and brain the energy needed to complete the task. Or giving you the courage to get through a difficult moment – this is the shift in perspective she is recommending. Your body is getting you ready to tackle the stressful task in front of you…and that’s pretty darn beautiful.

You might be thinking, that’s all well and good, but what about the stress I’ve been under for years! I’m exhausted, drained, and my mind is fuzzy. What do I do about that?

Long-term stress and trauma can have a serious affect on our bodies and our brains. Research has found it can actually shrink our brain! Specifically targeting the area that deals with regulating our thoughts and feelings, and creating new memories. That’s why we tend to feel forgetful when we’re under loads of stress.

Don’t worry, all is not lost. Our bodies are amazing healers and are incredibly resilient. We just need to give our body some support.

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How to support your body during and after chronic stress:

1.    Every moment you feel relaxed is a win –

A nice chat with a friend, time with your loved one or favourite pet, a long bath, or even a good hearty laugh moves your nervous system into the relaxed state, allowing your body a chance to recover.

2.    Nutrient-dense foods –

Your body uses up a lot of nutrients while you’re under stress, so replenish them with a diet filled with fruits and veggies. This is a great time to have fresh-pressed juices daily (with lots of veggies) and/or take a high quality multivitamin.

3.    Feed your brain with Omega-3s –

DHA, a part of omega-3 fat, is an essential building block of the brain. Take at least 1000mg of fish oil or a high quality algae-based DHA supplement.

4.    Exercise –

A fast way to lower your stress hormones is to get some exercise. Moderate exercise is key, high intensity exercise is yet another stress on your body. Exercise also stimulates the production of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which strengthens the connections between your neurons (brain cells). Aim for 30 – 60 mins per day.

5.    Find a relaxing daily practice

Mediation, yoga, or a prayer/gratitude practice can not only give you some time to relax, but it also strengthens your ability to relax throughout the day. And it can help your brain recover from the stress. 15 – 20 mins regularly (3 – 7x a week) is all you need.

What are you favourite ways to relax and rejuvenate? A long bath? A walk in nature? Let me know in the comments below :).