As the holidays approach, many of us find ourselves in a state of constant jaw-clenching stress as we endure excessive traffic and crowded shopping centers, attend holiday gatherings, and travel to see friends and family. But have you ever thought about stress and its short- and long-term impact on the brain?
At Thync, our scientists apply their collective decades of neuroscience research to create products grounded in the function of the nervous system. In this first “Ask a Neuroscientist” blog post we’ll explore stress and how to get through the holidays (and beyond) with our brains and sanity intact.
Your brain and holiday stress
First, some background on the brain and how it works: Your brain has 100 billion nerve cells, called neurons, that transmit electrochemical impulses and chemical signals along neural pathways. All of the information the brain processes (thoughts, emotions, memories, learning) happens through its neurons. Think of your brain as the central processing center.
We all know that a constant barrage of heart-pounding stress is not healthy. What you may not know is that it can cause an increase in the stress hormone called cortisol. If cortisol continues to build up in the body without a fight-or-flight response to release it, this may result in weight gain, lowered immune function, increased blood pressure, and heart disease.
Prolonged stress can also suppress the formation of new neurons in the brain, causing your brain to atrophy. Earlier this year, Daniela Kaufer at UC Berkeley discovered that chronic stress and elevated levels of cortisol also affect learning and memory.
The good news is that your brain is highly adaptable and adding stress-reducing tactics like meditation, mindfulness, and regular exercise, along with proper sleep can all help the brain recover from stress.
3 tips for battling holiday stress
1) Mindfulness and meditation
Mindfulness typically refers to observing thoughts and emotions as an unbiased observer. Clinical psychologists John Teasdale and Zindel Segal studied 2,000 patients who suffered at least three episodes of depression and gave them six months of a mindfulness practice paired with cognitive therapy. The patients reduced the risk of relapse by nearly 40% in the year following the onset of a severe depression, according to a Scientific American article.
Not sure how to get started? Read Mindfulness Made Simple.
While stress can lead to brain degeneration, our brains are able to produce new brain cells, a process called neurogenesis. A variety of studies have shown that exercise increases neurogenesis. Though the type and duration of exercise required for this process to happen has been debated, the minimum is “blessedly low,” according to a study from Dr. Fred Gage at the Laboratory of Genetics at the Salk Institute in San Diego.
All that holiday socializing can actually help reduce cortisol and stress. Akira Sawa, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University, established that close-knit human bonds of all kinds are vital for physical and mental health. Physical touch activates the parasympathetic nervous system to help reduce your stress, so give someone you love a hug or simply chat with a friend.
Now, it’s your turn. What brain questions do you have for the Thync scientists? Leave a note in the comments section below and be sure to subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss any updates.