By JUDD MATSUNAGA, Esq.
I just turned 65. And, if I’ve learned anything about life, I can tell you that life is filled with challenges, disappointments, and stressful events, e.g., deaths, family strife, money issues, personal health concerns, and pandemics. The human body was built to withstand a certain degree of stress, but the amount we each can handle varies greatly.
Although short-term stress can actually be good for you, when stress becomes overwhelming or is chronic and constant, it can take a toll on your health. Many studies link excessive ongoing stress with heart disease, stroke, headaches, back pain, trouble sleeping, and irritable bowel disorder. But did you know that continuous stress also affects your brain???
“No. What happens to your brain when you’re stressed?” When stress is intense or continues unabated, it begins to produce changes to the brain’s structure and function. Long-term exposure to cortisol and other stress hormones can have real, measurable effects on the brain — particularly in the areas of the hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex.
The brain undergoes structural and functional changes that can permanently alter it. Chronic stress can also lead to shrinkage in the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain involved in planning, judgment, and decision making. Over time you may have more trouble remembering, and you may be less adept at responding to stress in the future.
You might say, “Yeah, yeah. We all know: (1) that stress is a killer, and (2) we all have it. Tell me something I don’t know.” All right – according to “A Guide to Cognitive Health,” a 2020 Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School, the effects of stress on the brain are reversible to some extent.
That’s great news!!! But how? Although you can’t just wish away your troubles and strife, you can change how you react to these stressors. The key is learning how to manage stress more effectively so that it exerts less of a damaging influence. In the process, you can help build your ability to bounce back from difficult or stressful experiences. According to the Harvard Special Report, here are a few tested methods that can help improve cognitive health:
Exercise: Even as it tones your muscles, burns fat, and enhances brain activity, exercise also improves your mood and relieves stress. When you jog, swim, dance, or play tennis, your brain releases natural pain-killing chemicals called endorphins, which give you the immediate good feeling sometimes termed a “runner’s high.”
At the same time, working out focuses your mind — on the feel of your arms slicing through the water, or the angle of your shot as you aim the ball at the basket. The preoccupation steers your thoughts away from the day’s stressors. Regular exercise also helps you sleep better, which itself can combat stress.
Practice deep breathing: Has anyone ever told you to take a deep breath when you were upset? That advice is firmly rooted in science. Whenever you breathe deeply, the incoming rush of oxygen signals your brain to reduce its production of stress hormones. Your heart rate steadies, and your blood pressure slows. As a result of these physiological effects, you feel calmer and more focused. You don’t need to devote much time to deep breathing. Just a few minutes a day is enough.
Eat well: Stress increases your desire for so-called “comfort foods” like pizza, cake, and macaroni and cheese. These foods are comforting, at least momentarily, e.g., when you bite into a chocolate bar, you get an initial pleasurable rush. At the same time, comfort foods inhibit activity in the brain areas where you process stress.
When you’re stressed, fruits and vegetables are much better options than comfort foods. A nutrient-and fiber-dense diet that’s high in fresh fruits and vegetables increases serotonin production in the brain, which boosts mood. These foods are also high in antioxidants, which buffer the harmful effects of stress on the immune system.
Sleep: Anyone who’s tried to fall asleep after a particularly trying day knows it’s not easy to drift off when your mind is preoccupied with worry. When stress hormones course through your body and brain, they produce a state of arousal that prevents restful sleep. A lack of sleep in turn ratchets up stress levels even more.
To escape this cycle, free yourself from worries that weigh heavily on your mind by writing them down. Keeping a journal or simply making a list of things you have to do tomorrow is an effective way to release your concerns so you can concentrate on getting a good night’s rest.
Listen to music: A simple melody can be an incredibly powerful tool for combating stress. Music can mentally transport you to another time and place, calm frayed nerves, and even exert physiologic changes on your body — like slowing heart rate and lowering blood pressure.
Studies suggest that listening to music during a challenging situation can reduce levels of anxiety and perceived stress and improve your ability to cope. Music also touches areas of the brain associated with memory and emotion. This may be why some people with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease perk up when they hear songs from their youth and are able recall every word.
Stop multitasking: Your brain was designed to focus on one thing at a time. In fact, you never really multitask. Instead, your brain uses additional resources to allow you to switch quickly back and forth between different tasks. Research shows that when you try to do too much at once, you not only increase your stress levels, but you also create a sort of mental “bottleneck” that reduces your efficiency and your ability to successfully complete any one of the tasks.
Maintain social connection: A strong social support network can be your anchor during turbulent times. Just having a friend to call and vent to about your day is incredibly comforting. The act of connecting with another human being lowers stress hormones and decreases the perception of stress. Having accessible friends and family combats loneliness, improves feelings of self-worth, and increases your ability to cope with life’s challenges.
Embrace the outdoors: Don’t underestimate the value of a simple walk in the woods or the park. Spending time outdoors in green spaces reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and boosts mood. A 2019 study in the **International Journal of Environmental Health Research** found that spending just 20 minutes in a park was enough to improve people’s overall well-being, even if they didn’t exercise while they were there.
The power of positivity and purpose: Certain personality traits can help buffer the effects of stress. People who engage in positive thinking — what we might call a “glass half-full” mentality — and those who have a clear purpose in life seem to withstand the effects of stress better than those who quickly cave in response to the stressors in their lives. While it might seem impossible to change your character, there is a lot you can do to reframe your thinking — and help your brain in the process.
Think positive: A growing body of research has shown that pessimism affects more than just your mood. In a 2020 study, scientists at University College London found that participants who were more pessimistic showed greater decline in cognitive functions and had more amyloid deposits and tangles in their brains, putting them at greater risk for Alzheimer’s. Positive thinking is an essential factor in your ability to effectively cope with stress and difficulties in life.
Remember, just as your brain changes in response to external factors, it changes in response to your thoughts. By reframing your thoughts in a more positive light, you can help improve your health in general and your cognitive fitness in particular. Here are some ways to help you do this:
● Savor pleasure: Granted, much of what is going on in the world today is grim. But that makes it all the more important to savor good things as they occur, consciously enjoying even small pleasures — a good cup of coffee, a homegrown tomato, a chat with a friend. Often people let everyday pleasures slip by without much notice, while placing a great deal of emphasis on stress. Savoring can help reverse that trend, especially when you share pleasurable experiences with friends and family.
● Nurture gratitude. Gratitude is thankful appreciation for the goodness in your life. One way to enhance your gratitude is to keep a gratitude diary. Each day, write down three things for which you’re grateful — the more specific the better.
In one study, participants were asked to write a few sentences each week, focusing on five things. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily hassles or things that had displeased them. The third group wrote about events that had affected them, with no guidance on whether to choose positive or negative events.
After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to doctors than those who focused on hassles.
● Laugh often: The old saying “laughter is the best medicine” has more than a kernel of truth to it. Chuckling at a comedy or sharing a joke with a friend is a potent stress reliever. Each time you laugh, a rush of oxygen-rich air fills your lungs, nourishing your heart and brain. Your muscles and blood vessels relax. Production of feel-good chemicals like dopamine increases, while stress hormone production decreases. Even the anticipation of having a good laugh is enough to lower levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, according to one study.
If you want to harness the joint benefits of laughter and exercise, try laughter yoga. This program, which was developed in India, follows the premise that the body benefits from laughter, whether it’s spontaneous or induced. The program incorporates exercise with a generous dose of belly laughs, and it’s taught in thousands of centers around the world.
● Practice random acts of kindness: It’s good to be good. Research demonstrates that people who help others often have happier, healthier lives. One study even found that people who derive happiness from doing things for others rather than for themselves showed changes in gene activity that are associated with better health.
In conclusion, the last suggestion in the Harvard Special Report to improve cognitive health by reducing stress is to meditate or pray. Meditation takes deep breathing one step further. Although its foundation is simple — breath coupled with mental focus — its application can take several forms.
In mindfulness meditation, you shift your attention to the inward and outward flow of breath. When negative thoughts or concerns enter your mind, you simply let them pass, without judgment. During mantra meditation, you repeat a word or sound, like “om,” to keep your mind anchored in the moment.
There is something inherently powerful about this kind of mental stillness. But meditation doesn’t just calm the brain — it changes it as well. Brain scans are giving researchers clues as to how this might happen. MRI images taken after an eight-week meditation program reveal an apparent shrinkage of the amygdala, which could correlate to better regulation of the stress response.
Normally, shrinkage of the brain corresponds to poorer cognitive outcomes. But with
the amygdala, smaller can be better, because a larger amygdala has been linked to higher levels of stress and anxiety.
For those who believe in a higher power, prayer can have similar effects to meditation. Different forms of prayer — for example, those involving repetitive movements, repeating a word, reciting a psalm, or manipulating beads or another object — may have distinct effects on the brain. The focused repetition of words or actions puts the mind into a more alert state. Prayer might also serve as a buffer against mental decline. If you need help getting started, go see your pastor or life coach.
Judd Matsunaga, Esq., is the founding partner of the Law Offices of Matsunaga & Associates, specializing in estate/Medi-Cal planning, probate, personal injury and real estate law. With offices in Torrance, Hollywood, Sherman Oaks, Pasadena and Fountain Valley, he can be reached at (800) 411-0546. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.