Brain Health

Stress Management

Have you ever been over your stress limit? At one time or another, almost all of us have.

It is imperative to harness chronic stress because it damages the body, emotions—and the mind. Most harmful of all, chronic stress creates overproduction of a hormone called cortisol. These elevated levels of cortisol may damage the brain cells in our memory center.

Successful stress management involves reducing depression, improving your ability to deal with stressful situations, and, most of all, utilizing techniques that elicit the relaxation response—a condition characterized by a lowered metabolic rate and a calm state of mind. Stress-relaxation techniques are a crucial component in creating a healthier brain, according to a large body of medical research.

The following approaches have been scientifically proven to lower cortisol levels by prompting the relaxation response:

Meditation. Meditation stops your brain from speeding forward, causing longer spaces between thoughts, and it enables you to connect with your inner spirit. According to many research studies over three decades, this simple technique can increase your ability to perform, help lower your heart rate, reduce anxiety, soften chronic pain, and increase longevity. There are four general requirements for the most basic form of meditation: a comfortable sitting position, a quiet environment, a "mental device" such as a word, sound or short prayer upon which to concentrate, and a focused attitude.

Guided Imagery and Visualization. Guided imagery is usually done with the use of a tape and, therefore, utilizes outside suggestions, such as, "See yourself on a beach or other beautiful spot." Visualization is a technique in which people create their own inner scene without the aid of outside stimulation to spark the relaxation response.

Hypnosis. Hypnosis can be self-induced or induced by a therapist trained in this technique. Both self-hypnosis and regular hypnosis produce the desired results. For example, Eriksonian hypnosis, initially developed by psychologist Milton Erikson, is powerfully effective in benefiting physical and mental health over the long term. This type of hypnosis uses a prearranged script that is customized to the individual by a trained therapist.

Deep Breathing. Deep breathing is a classical way to bring balance back into your life. As your breathing deepens, the relaxation response forms and your respiration rate slows. Yogic long deep breathing and Zen breathing are both very effective. In yogic breathing, first the diaphragm expands; then each portion of the lungs, from the bottom to the top, fills with oxygen. A mantra or healing sound may be utilized with yogic breathing, while in Zen breathing, the participant usually focuses on their breath. In both of these techniques, the breathing is usually done through the nose.

Classical Music. Your ears are intimately connected to your brain because your auditory nerve is a major component of the central nervous system. Once the messages from the nerve reach the central nervous system, they are distributed throughout the brain. Therefore, hearing loud aggressive music may produce belligerent behavior. By contrast, listening to classical music, with its rich textures and harmonious orchestrations, produces more pleasant conduct.

Massage. The largest body of research on the effects of massage therapy was performed on seriously ill premature infants. The study, conducted at the University of Miami School of Medicine, observed newborn babies in a neonatal intensive care unit, with all its attendant monitoring equipment. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, were markedly elevated in these infants, and this correlated with a poor medical outcome. When touch therapy by a nurse or preferably by the infant's mother was introduced into the baby's care, their bad hormones went down, their good chemicals went up, and the children healed. This research has also been carried out in adults with a similar biochemical picture.

Prayer. Surveys indicate that close to 95 percent of Americans, representing multiple religions and spiritual practices, pray. Prayer manifests its benefits in many ways: a reduction of stress chemicals; improved health behaviors, such as not smoking; and enhanced spirituality, defined as a person's search for the sacred. Spiritual living is linked to better medical outcomes when treatment is necessary, as well as less depression and longevity. While all forms of prayer are good stress management tools, short prayers that are chanted, sung or repeated appear to be the most useful.

Note: It is not necessary to lock yourself in to any of these stress-relaxation techniques. Rather, feel free to explore any or all of them to see what works best for you. Simply start with any of these techniques for a few minutes a day and enjoy better brain function.

Contributed by Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D., president and medical director of the Alzheimer's Prevention Foundation International…the Original Voice of Alzheimer's Prevention, Tucson, AZ.

For more information, connect with the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America’s licensed social workers. Click here or call 866.232.8484. Real People. Real Care.



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