In my previous blog post, Why Stress Reduction is Critical for Weight Loss, I spoke about how the release of too much cortisol (your stress hormone) causes weight gain. The average person doesn’t get enough sleep, which in turn doesn’t allow the body the opportunity to overcome the consequences of stress. Monika Fleshner, a neuroimmunophysiologist at the University of Boulder, Colorado, studies the effect of stress on the immune system: “It’s only under the circumstances of chronic stress or extreme, severe stress that we suffer negative effects.” Otherwise, stress is healthy and necessary for a healthy, functioning brain.
So what is healthy stress? Did you ever even think stress could be healthy? Let’s talk about it…
This article focuses on the upside of stress. Increasingly, researchers are probing the upside of stress. Some believe short-term boosts of it can strengthen the immune system and actually protect against diseases of aging like Alzheimer’s. Stress keeps brain cells working at peak capacity. Stress is a burst of energy that allows our bodies to tell us what we need to do. Moderate amounts of stress are critical for optimal brain performance.
New research by Kaufer and UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Elizabeth Kirby has uncovered exactly how acute stress (short-lived stress, not chronic) primes the brain for improved performance.
Studies on rats placed in brief, stressful events have shown that the stress causes stem cells in their brains to proliferate into new nerve cells that, when mature two weeks later, improved the rats’ mental performance.
“I think intermittent stress events are probably what keep the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert,” says Kirby. I believe the key to healthy stress comes down to how we handle it. You can train your brain to use one of several techniques to calm down the body and brain. It takes conscious training to automate the nervous system (connected to the subconscious mind) to slow down your breathing, focus the brain on a peaceful scene, and relax all the muscles in the body. After a period of time, this stress reduction exercise will become the norm.
For example, I take 3 deep breaths through my nose and then release the breath slowly through my mouth, after which I start counting backwards in my mind from twenty, picturing myself in a hammock between two palms trees, rocking slowly back and forth, and systematically relaxing the muscles in my body, starting at the top of my head and going all the way down to my toes.
What is really extraordinary is that at the conclusion of this short routine, my body is very calm and my mind has become very clear. This behavior/habit sets me up beautifully for the next task at hand.
Your goal in life shouldn’t be the absence of stress. Stress is necessary and healthy. The key is how you dissipate it or channel it into productive action. Very successful people take extra high-stress energy and make it into a high-energy, positive experience. Training your brain to effectively use stress to your advantage will bring you success in any endeavor you engage in. For more information on training your brain, download a free version of my short eBook, Diet Chaos, and read it straight from your email today. Kaufer, Kirby, and their colleagues in UC Berkeley’s Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute described their results in a paper published April 16, 2013 in the new open access online journal eLife.
By David Meine
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