Keeping our brains in good shape is just as important as taking care of our bodies.
For most of us, stress is the biggest obstacle to maintaining a healthy mind state. So can we train our brains against stress?
Brain Training has become a buzz phrase for exercising the mind to be better at things like memory recall, verbal skill and attention span.
If we can exercise our brains to selectively improve certain functions associated with performance, can we also use training to help our brains cope better with stress?
The effects of stress on your brain
In individuals who are in a constant state of stress and anxiety, the brain continually releases cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol plays an important role in triggering the fight or flight mechanism that helps us survive dangerous situations, but the elevated cortisol levels associated with chronic stress can increase your risk of depression, interfere with learning and memory and contribute to a host of other health problems.
Luckily, there are simple changes you can make to your lifestyle that can reduce cortisol and rewire your brain to respond more calmly to stressful situations.
Using mindfulness to reduce stress and anxiety
Mindfulness is a technique for training the brain to focus on the present moment. With mindfulness, you train your mind in stressful situations to control where your attention goes, instead of letting your mind control you, often lapsing into its default mode of fixating on the past or worrying about the future.
Mindfulness allows you to be aware of your thoughts and emotions so they don’t overcome you. Instead of letting fear, anger or anxiety trigger an immediate, sometimes irrational reaction, mindfulness lets you assess a situation from a calm, clear and logical perspective that allows for an easier resolution.
Meditation is the key to training your brain to focus on the present. Books and classes can help with understanding, inspiration and motivation, but learning simple techniques for mindful meditation is something everyone can practise at home daily.
Healthy body, healthy mind
I know, it’s a cliché, but listen closely. Just as constantly being exposed to stress increases cortisol levels, regularly engaging in pleasurable and relaxing activities effectively reduces cortisol levels.
Physical exercise is also vitally important for keeping your brain in top condition. When stress effects the brain, the rest of the body feels the impact as well. So, it makes sense that if your body feels better, your mind should too. Exercise produces endorphins, the chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and improve sleep, which in turn reduces stress.
Studies show that regular aerobic exercise can reduce the mental fatigue and diminished concentration often associated with stress, as well as elevate and stabilise mood, improve sleep quality and improve self-esteem.
Your brain is like a muscle. It can strengthen and improve with training. And with the right sort of training, your brain can make permanent changes over time that will help you live a life with less stress and a more confident, positive outlook.