The cause wasn’t hard to figure out.
I was stressed nearly every waking moment, and sometimes during the night, as well.
I thought I had good reason to be stressed! A series of tumbler events had succeeded in pretty much tumbling my life upside down.
Naturally, it felt awful, and I just wanted to ‘get over it’ as soon as possible, to free myself, to think positively about my life again. I wanted to move on, right now!
But then, it’s a bit difficult to move on right now while seated in a criminal courtroom. It might be unreasonable to suggest scuttling stress at the bedside of a child recovering from brain surgery, or to ‘calm oneself’ with a daughter in the middle of an asthma attack….or to ‘free oneself from stress’ while attending a husband’s funeral.
In fact, at the same time that these traumatic events were swirling around my head, and IN my head, I pretty much couldn’t think at all!
I was forgetting important events, having difficulty learning anything new, was distracted much of the time and feeling incredibly anxious. In other words, the phrase ‘thinking positively’ presupposes a person who CAN think. Sometimes, stress pretty much cancels that one out.
There is a very real component about stress that literally causes a person to quit thinking. The culprit is the stress hormone, cortisol. Constant floods of cortisol can shrink, stop and even kill the growth of new neurons in the part of the brain called the hypocampus.
As if that’s not enough, constant stress can even shrink the medial prefrontal cortex. For those of you who don’t know where that is located, and didn’t really CARE until you began reading this …I COULD paste a boring brain diagram in here……
Instead let’s just say that when it begins to diminish in size, decision making, working memory and control of impulsive behavior is negatively affected.
How about that incident where you found yourself screaming at a red light to change? Huh? Wasn’t that just a teeny bit lacking in control of impulsive behavior? Could be.
In fact, proneness to anxiety and depression accelerates when the medial prefrontal cortex decelerates.
Strangely, while some parts of the brain shrink in size under chronic stress, other parts enlarge. For instance, the amygdala. The amygdala is critical in the formation and storage of memories associated with extremely emotional events. It pairs an event with a feeling, and this connection is stashed away in our long-term memory so we can either avoid the event or retrieve it in the future. The changes cortisol creates increase intense emotions such as fear, anxiety, and aggression. PTSD is a well-known condition associated with the machinations of the amygdala.
Children are often affected by the enlargement of the amygdala. We all know children who are unusually troublesome, unable to concentrate, unable to learn, aggressive and anxious. Studies show that mothers under constant stress during pregnancy, whether it be due to abuse, economic vulnerability or lack of love and esteem, often produce children with these characteristics. Research confirms that these children have an enlarged hind-brain, or amygdala.
Okay, you’re scaring me! Isn’t the stress of the situation enough, without worrying about my brain shrinking, too? Come on!
Luckily, a very effective response to unresponsive brain function is exercise.
Right. Certainly. I’ll go out and dance up a storm this very minute!
Wait that minute! It has been shown that exercise builds a brain that increases in size and cognitive function as well as resisting stress shrinkage.
Exercise helps spur the release of a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps in the development of healthy brain tissue and reverses the negative effects of stress. (4) Think of it as fertilizer for the brain. It keeps existing neurons vital and healthy and also encourages the growth of new ones. The more we exercise, the more BDNF we create, and the more neurons are generated, particularly in the hippocampus.
Exercise also releases human growth hormone (HGH), which is vital to the growth and development of all brain and body cells. HGH counteracts the natural cellular atrophy of aging and pumps up brain volume. (5) A single bout of sprinting for 30 seconds can generate a six-fold increase in HGH, with levels peaking two hours later.
Barton, J., Pretty, J. (2010) “What is the Best Dose of Nature and Green Exercise for Improving Mental Health? A Multi-Study Analysis.” Environmental Science & Technology. 44: 3947-55.
Brisk movement oxygenates the entire body, particularly the brain. We all know that growth and maintenance of any organ feeds upon proper oxygenation and circulation. Exercise that pushes endurance levels literally forces concentration and gives that ‘fight or flight’ syndrome something to do!
Pretty decent fix, don’t you think?
So try a little Cowboy Hip Hop.
What in tarnation?
Do ya good!