by Susan Grotenhuis
Remember the Seinfeld episode where Frank Costanza goes around yelling “Serenity now!” in a comical attempt to lower his blood pressure? Most of us have experienced that sort of stress, when even peaceful pursuits feel frustrating. It’s not surprising since world stress is on the rise. In Japan in the late 1980s, hard-working executives began dying from heart attacks and strokes. In extreme cases these people were in their 20s and 30s. The phenomenon was so prevalent that it was given a label, “karoshi” or “death from overwork.” Here in the U.S., 67 million Americans are living with high blood pressure, one in every three adults. Many more have prehypertension (higher than normal blood pressure), and one in five adults doesn’t know they have the disease.
While the connection between stress and high blood pressure is well-known, the link between stress and brain health is only now gaining attention. It turns out that chronic stress has a negative effect on brain performance and memory. Two hormones are released when we are stressed: adrenaline and cortisol. It’s during prolonged periods of stress, when cortisol lingers, that damage to the brain occurs. Higher levels of cortisol in the blood have been associated with a greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Cortisol has also been shown to produce the beta-amyloid peptides which lead to the tangles so typical in patients with Alzheimer’s.
In a UC-Irvine study, rodents were injected with a daily dose of cortisol for one week. Through brain imaging they observed that within that short period of time, levels of both beta-amyloid and tau proteins were greatly elevated. Another study revealed that people experiencing significant stress were two to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. It is clear through these studies that reducing stress is crucial to optimizing the chances of having a healthy brain later in life.
As we shoulder the burden of multitasking our way through life, how is this achieved? The answer is found within the graceful balance of nature, in the ebb and flow of the tides and the growth and rest of the seasons. In Chinese medicine it’s known as yin and yang, light and dark, opposites working in tandem. In the midst of the chaos we have to learn to carve out pockets of calm. Here are five simple steps you can take to reduce brain-damaging stress in your life.
1. Deep breathing. Use your diaphragm and breathe fully. Inhale for a count of four, hold for a count of four and exhale slowly to a count of eight. Repeat several times with your eyes closed if possible.
2. Progressive relaxation. Lie on the floor or recline in a chair with eyes closed. Tune out interfering thoughts and sounds. Starting with your head, face and neck, tense each muscle group then relax and let go. Progress down the body to arms, shoulders, etc., until you reach your toes. Take your time and focus on releasing all the tension in your body.
3. Moments of silence. When was the last time you shut off and checked out? Escape from the pervasive noise of your cell phone, computer or environment and steal some solitude. Grabbing a few moments for your self can do wonders in restoring a sense of balance and control.
4. Have a laugh. Laughter and smiling, genuine or forced, has been shown to release beneficial endorphins and lower stress. Trade jokes with some friends and don’t take yourself too seriously. Smile a lot and stay positive!
5. Calm surroundings. Whether it’s a walk in nature or soaking in the tub, place yourself in a peaceful environment. When our bodies are relaxed our brains will quickly follow.
Restoring a sense of balance and reducing stress is a realistic objective. It may be as simple as flipping the “off” switch.
Susan Grotenhuis is a Wellness Professional and certified Brain Fitness Facilitator at Asbury Methodist Village, a Gaithersburg, Md.-based continuing care retirement community. Susan’s passion for health and fitness drew her to a second career in the fitness industry and she has been assisting Asbury residents reach their wellness goals for three years. In addition to holding certifications in personal training and senior fitness, Susan developed and teaches an 8-week course on brain fitness and health for residents at the community. Brain Waves helped Asbury Methodist Village earn a 2014 Innovator of the Year award from the International Council on Active Aging.
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