You work a full day at the office and remain on call the moment you leave via all sorts of electronic devices. Or your partner thinks it’s okay to be polite to everyone around him but take out his frustrations on you. Or you try to juggle your children and your job, never really feeling like you’ve given either your best shot.
And with the holidays upon us, we’re even more stressed than usual. Our lists have lists. We feel pressure to be at our superhuman best. We are tempted to drink too much alcohol or take a pill to see us through. We find ourselves trying to survive the holidays instead of enjoying them. Our stress levels are often highest at this time of year.
But stress isn’t always bad. Stress puts your body on red alert so you can escape dangerous situations. Stress can kick you into high performance mode so you can do well under pressure. Stress can even serve as a positive motivator. But the problem comes when you suffer chronic stress.
Constant stress can be so hard on your brain that it literally changes its size and structure. When your body feels threatened, it releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, which physically prime your body for action. Your heart literally beats faster, your blood pressure soars, your breath quickens—which is great if you need to respond to an emergency. But it’s not so great on a continual basis.
High levels of cortisol, over time, will cause a loss of synaptic connections in your brain that will affect your learning, memory and stress control functions. This will exacerbate your ability to keep your stress to a minimum. It will affect your ability to concentrate, to make good decisions, and to exercise good judgment. And stress inhibits your brain’s ability to produce new cells, which sets the stage for more serious problems like depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
Even when you undergo moderate stress for a short period of time, you will find it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. You may feel irritable or moody. Or just overwhelmed and out of sorts. And you find yourself forgetting little things.
The good news is you can reverse the damage too much cortisol does to your stressed brain through exercise and mediation—by practicing to breathe deeply and stay focused. We’ll talk more about stress next week.