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Your Guide to Brain Optimization, Part 2: Stress and Brain Health

In part one of your guide to brain optimization and mental clarity, we covered diet and brain-healthy foods.  

Today, we’ll go one step deeper by covering another topic that’s faced by many Americans today: stress, and its effects on the brain. According to the American Psychological Association, Americans recorded an average stress level of 5.6 in January 2021, and 84 percent had reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress sometime in the last two weeks.

When you’re feeling stressed, your brain health can take a nosedive. On the other hand, managing and reducing your stress can help your brain perform at its best. Stress is a powerful tool for growth and development, but we don’t want to fall victim to excessive amounts of it. Here’s what to know about the effects of stress on the brain and how to reduce your stress for mental clarity.

What types of stress are there?

Stress can come in many forms: physical, psychological, emotional, psycho-social, and psycho-spiritual, to name a few. There are two types of stress: distress (negative stress) and eustress (positive stress). Positive stress energizes us, increases our motivation, and helps us focus. But when negative stress—from sources like deadlines, financial crises, relationship problems, or trauma— stays elevated for a prolonged period of time, there can be troublesome consequences.

The effects of stress on hormones and brain structure

If the body is constantly under stress, our hormone processes are affected. That’s a big deal, because hormones are able to elicit biological effects on different parts of the central nervous system and play an important role in behavior and cognition. When stressed, the body will “steal” the precursor to these positive hormones and shift our body towards making more cortisol. When this state becomes chronic, it can starve our body of hormones that are essential for optimal brain function.

Some studies have also shown that stress can cause structural changes in different parts of the brain. Chronic stress can lead to atrophy of the brain mass and decrease its weight. These structural changes bring about differences in the response to stress and can impact cognition and memory. For example, the function of memory and the conversion of short term memory to long-term memory are dependent on the hippocampus—an area of the brain that has the highest density of cortisol receptors. The hippocampus also represents the highest level of response to stress. Additionally, the amygdala is very important in assessing the emotional experiences of memory. Chronic stress, and the increase in plasma cortisol that results from it, leads to a reduction in the number of dendritic branches and neurons. Stress also causes structural changes in synaptic terminals and decreases neurogenesis in the hippocampus tissue.

How stress affects cognition

Cognition is another important feature of brain function. Just to refresh your memory (yes, that’s a brain joke), cognition is the reception and perception of perceived stimuli and its interpretation. This includes learning, decision making, attention, and judgment.

Stress has many effects on cognition that depend on its intensity, duration, origin, and magnitude. Similar to memory, cognition is mainly formed in the hippocampus, amygdala, and temporal lobe. The net effect of stress is a reduction in cognition, so anything you do to reduce stress can lead to an increase in cognition. In fact, stress activates some physiological systems including the autonomic nervous system, central neurotransmitter and neuropeptide system, and the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which have direct effects on neural circuits in the brain involved with data processing.

Try using this stress management checklist

Okay, we just covered a lot about brain health, brain structure, hormones, and stress. So, what actionable things can you do to relieve stress? Below, you’ll find a questionnaire. Take some time to reflect on the questions and learn more about your current stress management techniques. Then, once you have a baseline, you can start making small changes to reduce your stress, optimize your brain health, and improve your mental clarity.

  1. Do you check-in with yourself in the morning before looking at social media or answering emails, listening to what your body needs?
  2. Do you schedule quiet time for yourself to ensure rest and relaxation?
  3. Do you do 2-3 activities that refill your personal energy bank account?
  • Getting outside away from technology.
  • Yoga or light recuperating movement.
  • Cold or Hot Exposure.
  • Grounding.
  • Breathe work or Meditation.
  • Having non-negotiables, boundaries, being able to say “no” to create time to invest in your well-being.
  • A positive emotion practice like affirmations, mantras, or gratitude journals.
  1. Do you surround yourself with people who believe in you, who know your strengths, who see your beautiful talents, who recognize your potential, who can be honest with you, and who align with your visions and want to further those visions?
  2. Have you dedicated yourself to master nutrition and sleep which allows you to handle stress better?
  3. Do you have a healthy positive stress management practice that you can always fall back on when you're experiencing distress?

It comes down to finding the right balance. You can’t burn both ends of the candle and expect the central nervous system to operate at its highest level without consequences. Alternatively, you can’t live a stress-free life and expect for the brain to perform optimally. So, what’s the perfect balance? Living a purpose-driven life toward our dreams, while simultaneously recuperating from stressful events––so we continually have the energy and cognitive capacity to achieve our goals.

While these are general ideas of how to manage stress for mental clarity, your genetics and medical history also have a huge impact. At Wild Health, we’re able to do advanced testing and screenings that give you personalized advice for brain health. Click here to learn more.