September 13, 2009

this is your brain on stress

The New York Times reported on a Portugese study which demonstrated that persistent stress changes the structural makeup of the brain. And not in a particularly helpful way.

According to Dias-Ferreira and his colleagues at the University of Minho, brains under chronic stress show an increase in the neurological pathways associated with doing familliar, repetitive, rote kinds of responses, even in the absence of success.

Think of the end of an intense and tiring work week. You find yourself channel surfing, up and down, dozens of times, even though you know nothing is on.

Circling around the kitchen, searching various cabinets, fridge and freezer for a salty/sugary/creamy treat, coming up empty each time.

Then there's the supervisor who schedules yet another staff meeting where the same, tired ideas are passed around, the same ineffectual instructions are issued. Where everyone leaves muttering, "Why do we think it's going to work this time?"

According to the article, brains under longterm stress also show a decrease in neurological connections in "regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors."

A shortage of problem solving circuitry, in other words. The light bulb burns out. We stop thinking creatively. We shrink away from new and different ways to respond. Instead we retreat into old, familliar and comfortable habits.

We get ourselves into a big, fat, rut. (Pass the Oreo cookies, please?)

The good news is, relaxation helps undo these stress induced changes. Taking brisk walks. A friendly game of hoops. Talking it out with supportive listeners. Thinking positively. Deep breathing. Contemplating nature. Getting away for the weekend. Creative outlets. Good nutrition. A full night's sleep, or two, or three. Exercise. Meditation. Yoga.

So turn off the TV. Stop circling the kitchen. Do something different. Step outside and take several rounds of full inhales and full, emptying exhales. Gaze at the stars. Resolve to get to bed earlier and engage in a healthier self care routine. Talk more respectfully and assertively to loved ones and co-workers. Eventually (four weeks, in the case of the rats in the study) your brain can revive and new connections can branch out.

Recharged, you might just find that the light bulb flickers back to life.

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