Is Stress Shrinking your Brain? What can you do about it?

Is Stress Shrinking your Brain? What can you do about it?

Author: Jo Kempster

The very fact that there is a week devoted to highlighting Mental Health emphasises how important this now is.  The Mental Health Foundation, who organise the awareness week, are calling for change – for a less stressed nation.

But why do we need to become less stressed?  Stress in itself is not a mental health problem.  Many years ago it was a vital part of our ancestors ability to survive.  It was the means of preparing ourselves against danger.  When it works properly the amygdala (the part of our brain controlling emotions like fear and anxiety) switches on like a light.  At that point the brain shuts down any unnecessary functions and hormones, such as cortisol, flood the blood with glucose, giving a power surge to the body’s muscles to respond in two ways: flight or fight.

But what social scientists are discovering is that we have lost the ability to only switch the light on when there is real danger.  Our brains cannot distinguish between a lion’s menacing presence and the affront of a rude person who pushes past you in the queue.  The physiological response is the same so many of us are triggering our stress response repeatedly every day – day in, day out.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is going to have a detrimental effect on the body – causing what is known as the allostatic overload or general ‘wear and tear on the body’. Over time this can lead to physical illnesses such as heart disease, insomnia, muscle pain, damage to the immune system and even cancer. Researchers at the Yale Stress Center have also discovered that continual stress leads to the prefrontal cortex part of our brain being shut down and even reduced in size.

This prefrontal cortex regulates our amygdala, blood pressure and heart beat.  It also enables us to learn, plan, concentrate and make judgements.  So when this begins to stop working we struggle to cope with the continual decisions that make up our day to day lives.

We’ve all been in a position where we just can’t make a decision and for most of us that point is reached when we’re at our greatest stress.

Clearly we need to reduce the continual stress symptoms that so many of us encounter every day, whether at home or in the work place.

One of the concepts currently popular is ‘Mindfulness’.  The Cambridge Dictionary defines this as “The practice of being aware of your body, mind, and feelings in the present moment, thought to create a feeling of calm.”

A number of employers have brought in trainers to teach their employees how to use Mindfulness in Business Online Coursemindfulness.  For some this has proved very beneficial.  In parliament the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group is planning to make the UK a ‘mindful nation’, incorporating it into school curriculums, prisons, the workplace and healthcare.  Mindfulness therapies are increasingly available on the NHS and companies such as Google, Goldman Sachs, Apple and Ikea have embraced mindfulness, routinely offering courses to employees.

Sharon Salzberg a mindfulness teacher and author who (along with Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach) founded the Insight Meditation Society in 1975 and played a key role in bringing mindfulness and mindfulness meditation to the West says, “Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”

But Mindfulness does not suit everyone and for some people it can actually increase their stress levels. Dr Miguel Farias, a reader in cognitive and biological psychology has scrutinised the scientific research around mindfulness and found the claims made by its advocates to be dubious. “When you compare it with other forms of psychotherapy or physical exercise the improvements are the same.  Mindfulness performs no better than psychotherapy or jogging for 20 minutes every day.”

So maybe it is just a case of ‘horses for courses’ and fortunately there are numerous different ways of dealing with stress now available.  Perhaps the first way of dealing with stress is identifying what is causing it.

Is your stress work related?  Do you find when you go on holiday that it disappears, along with all the symptoms?  Then maybe you need to think how you can reduce the pressure of your job.  There are a number on online courses now available, which deal specifically with stress in the workplace; click here HERE to view a range of stress management courses

Time Management is something that can hugely help and not only at work.  Learning how to organise your time better reduces the panic of not meeting deadlines, always rushing to get somewhere on time. Many of us leave things to the last minute which means we just might not make it – ‘Ping’ on goes that light bulb in your brain with yet another surge of hormones and more wear and tear on your body.

Purpose Driven Time Management Online CourseMaybe you could persuade your boss to provide a time management course at work – as with many of these ideas they only really work in business if everyone is on board.  Sally may be the most organised person in the world but she works with Pete who has absolutely no time management skills whatsoever.  Pete is constantly stressed because he knows he’s holding up Sally who is stressed because Pete is late again!  Break the cycle by getting everyone to do the same course and start working as a team.

The reality is that in our modern world we will always encounter stress and, as we know from our ancestors, we need some stress to function well.  The ancestors who developed their amygdala survived, those that lived a stress-free existence were probably bludgeoned to death or eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger! So, we need to learn to live with our stress but not allow it to control us. As Confucius said “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”   Or as Winston Churchill recalled “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.”

Most of us who work will have by now done some form of e-learning.  Probably in the form of a course to cover a mandatory subject such as First Aid, GDPR, Manual Handling, Fire Safety.  But have you considered an online course to help you with stress?  Many people find the thought of going to a formal class too daunting, or even too embarrassing.  The advantage of a course you can take at home is, not only does it remove those obstacles, but it can be continually revisited.  Many of the strategies suggested in these courses for helping us live with stress require continual use and practise to actually work.  For example, breathing and relaxation exercises only work if they have been practised regularly to the point that they are second nature.  There is also the lower cost factor, which makes them accessible to a far wider audience.

Managers might also consider the advantage of taking a course and then cascading it down to their employees.  This provides a social element whilst also acknowledging that we could all be suffering from stress overload.  It shows a manager who is open to confidences about stress and mental health issues.  Often the smallest change in a work pattern can have a huge effect but if the problem is not discussed then the change is never made.

Listed below are a number of courses that could be of interest to anyone feeling stressed and to managers wanting to reduce stress in the workplace.  Remember it’s not the stress that’s a mental health issue, it’s the continual onslaught of the physical effects of stress that lead to mental and physical illnesses. Control these and you may not become the one in four adult, or the one in ten child, that has mental health issues.

Stress Management Online Courses

Stress Management for Managers

Under Pressure – Successfully Coping with Stress

Stress Essentials

For more courses on Stress Management click HERE

Time Management Online Courses

Managing Your Time Effectively

Purpose Driven Time Management

Time Management Awareness

For more courses on Time Management click HERE

Range of related e-books starting at £4.12

A Useful Guide to Work Life Balance

A Useful guide to De-Stress You

A Useful Guide to being Healthy in the Workplace



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