Chronic Stress, Your Brain, and What You Need to Know
In an article recently posted to Psychology Today, Chronic Stress May Trigger a Double Whammy of Brain Damage, the author discusses damage as a result of chronic stress. Specifically, the author mentions a 'double whammy' that takes place - neurons in your hippocampus die off and new neurons are inhibited from growing when experiencing chronic stress.
The hippocampus is primarily involved in consolidation of short term to long term memory, spatial awareness, and navigation. It's part of our limbic system which sounds the alarm when our fight, flight, freeze response is being activated.
It has been shown that, "reduced hippocampal volume correlates with executive dysfunctioning in major depression," and is also known to be damaged and deteriorate in instances of Alzheimer's. If that weren't enough, the hippocampus is one of the most vulnerable parts of our brain to stress.
This means that chronic stress has a serious impact on the hippocampus which will ultimately impact our memory, mental health, and regulation of our executive functioning. This is one of the reasons why it's easy to be forgetful and have a hazy memory of details during stressful situations.
Given the state of modern society, many people currently experience chronic stress in a multitude of forms on a constant and daily basis.
The good news: the brain can regrow neurons in the hippocampus. This means that we can actively fight back against the effects of chronic stress while we work to mitigate the source/s of stress. Even if we are unable to directly reduce the stressors in our life, at the very least, we can work to bolster ourselves to ensure our well being and longevity.
There are a handful of ways to protect ourselves against chronic stress. The most effective and readily available tools to combat the impact of chronic stress on the brain are physical exercise, meditation, diet, and social support.
I mean, unless you plan to rid the world of chronic stress by overthrowing the systemic paradigm that keeps everything constantly under pressure grinding away into helpless oblivion...then, self-care may be the best, and possibly the most strategic, option in terms of return on investment of time and energy spent. Although, I think an endeavor of that magnitude would be immensely stressful. Maybe overwhelmingly so? Sooo...self-care?
It has been shown that exercise training increases the size of the hippocampus and improves memory. In one study, older adults were able to improve their hippocampus volume through moderate and light exercise. It has also been shown that intensity of exercise promotes hippocampus growth and may or may not impact spatial learning.
Establishing a regular ritual around being physical and being in our body can help improve our well being. It can be as simple as going for a walk regularly. It can also be easy to over complicate the process which will lead to not starting. The important thing is that we are active and get our body moving on a regular basis in a way that is sustainable.
If you want to workout and don't know where to start or you have been working out for a while and want something new then look at this very in depth post over at Nerd Fitness, How To Build Your Own Workout Routine: Plans, Schedules, and Exercises. It could be a helpful tool in creating a sustainable workout routine.
In addition to physical exercise, studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness practice can give a boost to the hippocampus as well. In the way that physical exercise works the body, meditation can be seen as a workout for the brain. In an 8 week meditation study, researchers found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus of the participants.
If you want to meditate and don't where to start, you can learn mindfulness meditation.
Regarding diet, one study in particular has shown that, "higher consumption of an unhealthy 'Western' dietary pattern was...associated with...smaller left hippocampal volume." While conversation about what is healthy or unhealthy can get nuanced and complicated, it's helpful to know that research demonstrated an Association of Long-Term Diet Quality with Hippocampal Volume. It establishes that, "higher long-term AHEI-2010 scores were associated with larger hippocampus volume."
The Alternative Healthy Eating Index, AHEI-2010 (AHEI), which is an alternative to the Healthy Eating Index, HEI-2005, establishes guidelines for healthy eating with various recommendations for quality and quantity of given food types. Given that we are talking about the hippocampus specifically, this can be a really helpful tool in setting guidelines for eating without starting from scratch or recreating the wheel.
The good thing about the AHEI is that it is largely recommendation based and there is no need to feel the pressure of sticking to a rigid diet. It's also backed by research and updated regularly to incorporate new findings.
In addition to being associated with larger hippocampus volume, the AHEI, "strongly predicts the risk of chronic disease." It can be a great guide or tool to use for ensuring your brain and body are getting the nutrients needed to fight chronic stress.
Lastly, ask for support if you are experiencing chronic stress and don't seem to be able to find a way out. While this tactic won't help heal your brain directly, it can help get you the support that you need to not feel stressed. Asking for help can be the hardest thing to do sometimes. Reach out to others that may be able to support you. Ask for resources.
Find a therapist. They are trained to help support others during times of crisis or stress. Their job is to be supportive and helpful. Find one you like and have chemistry with.
Given that modern society often demands we set aside our needs for the sake of the greater good, chronic stress is a reality for many people. And, one that's not going away anytime soon unless you are prepared to redefine or overthrow the system.
If stressed, we have to be intentional about creating space to care for ourselves properly. Exercise, meditation, diet, and social support can be helpful methods to strengthen our hippocampus, regulate the impact of stress in our life, and improve our mental health on a daily basis.