Actively Managing Your Stress… Your Brain Health Depends On It

“It’s not the load that kills you, it’s the way you carry it.” – Lou Holtz.

You’ve heard it before. It’s not the stress that gets you, it’s your reaction to it. But it’s not easy for most of us to just let go of stress, is it?

One thing we can do, however, is to identify our stress so that we can find active ways to manage it.

So what is stress? Webster defines it as, “A physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.”

There is acute stress, the reaction to an immediate threat. Once that threat goes away our stress hormones return to normal levels and there are no lasting effects. This type of stress keeps our brain in shape and ready for peak performance.

Then there is chronic stress, stress happening over a prolonged period of time. Chronic stress and the stress hormone, cortisol, are what can lead to health problems and long-term effects.

Chronic stress can lead to weight gain, osteoporosis, diabetes, digestive problems, depression, unhealthy lifestyle habits, cancer and heart disease.

And while it’s not uncommon to feel disorganized and forgetful when you’re under a lot of stress, over the long term, stress may actually change your brain in ways that affect your memory.

Many of us work to combat these physical challenges, but how many of us actively work on our stress?

From our brain’s perspective, some stress can be good. It strengthens areas in which it occurs. However, stress halts the production of new brain cells. It is associated with depression, a greater risk of mental illness, and causes us to be more emotional. Stress affects the hippocampus, the area of the brain which is the center of memory. The hippocampus has a key role in learning and emotional regulation. Stress also affects the prefrontal cortex which houses impulse control and decision making.

If you are concerned about your memory, could stress be a factor?

While we cannot remove stress from our lives, learning to better actively cope with stress can minimize its negative effects.

Everyone has their own things that work for them, and just like us, no two brains are alike so they all need different approaches. However, once you find what works for you, actively practicing those activities is a daily commitment that takes work to be effective.

So, what can we do?

  • Establish routines – having some control over situations (real or perceived) helps. Stick to some routine and when stress interferes, focus on that routine. Predictability can help fight stress.
  • Instead of tackling an entire situation, pick one thing that you CAN do, and do it. Take things one step at a time. Break down tasks into steps, and then break down those steps into more steps. “Doing something that is productive is a great way to alleviate emotional stress. Get your mind doing something that is productive.” – Ziggy Marley
    Moving forward, even in small increments, gets you toward your goal with positive reinforcement.
  • BREATHE! “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Thich Nhat Hanh dementia alliance
    When we are stressed we forget to take deep breaths. Our brain and body need fresh oxygen to work and they need more when stressed. Stop and take a couple of very deep cleansing breaths. Simple but very effective.
  • Increase your physical activity. Exercise is one of the most efficient ways to work through stress. It helps our body have something else to focus on, gives our brain an outlet, reduces cortisol while boosting the feel-good hormones, endorphins, gives us energy and helps with blood flow. All of this supports our brain and organs.
  • In a word, sleep. Lack of sleep is a risk factor for dementia. And while stress can lead to sleeplessness, our brain needs sleep to function. Our bodies restore and repair itself while we sleep. Sleep calms us, improves concentration, regulates mood and sharpens decision-making, all of which we need when we are stressed. Having healthy sleep habits and routines that we stick to even when stressed can create a more relaxed sleep environment.
  • Find a method of relaxation that works for you. Practice mindfulness and learn to be in the moment. Meditate, practice yoga, pray, use deep breathing, music or try laughing out loud. Talk therapy is helpful for many people, too. Whether it be with a licensed therapist or your best friend over a cup of herbal tea, talking it out with someone who is empathetic and non-judgmental can relieve stress and give perspective.
  • Finally, as we move throughout the day experiencing life, it’s joys and its stressors, keep this in mind. Self-talk – the way your inner voice makes sense of the world around you and the way you communicate with your inner self – can greatly affect your stress levels. You probably don’t realize how often you say negative things in your head, or how much it affects your experience. Notice when you are being negative. Change the negative to a neutral or positive. Set goals based on real-life and appreciate the steps you take to get there. Maybe you can’t walk up the whole staircase, but going up one more step each day will still get you to the top.

When speaking of dementia, stress is definitely a risk-factor. Decrease that risk by decreasing stress. I know it sounds much more simple than it is. As I share in healthy lifestyle talks on brain health, you don’t have to finish the crossword puzzle for it to be beneficial, but you do have to start it.

“Success is a project that’s always under construction.” – Pat Summit

Let’s try it using our positive self-talk: Today I will do one thing to help me manage my chronic stress. So take a couple of slow deep breaths and here we go…


Lisa Levine,
Director of Education
Dementia Alliance of North Carolina