This Neurologist Doesn't Want You To Live A Stress-Free Life — Here's Why
Stress management is central to most health plans—we all want to de-stress, right?—but not all stress is created equal. As we discussed on the main stage at this year's mbg revitalize, stress is often viewed as a wholly negative state and detrimental to long-term health. And yes, stress can negatively affect our ability to eat right and exercise, as well as our mood and life enjoyment. But that's only half of the story.
The stress in our life can be classified one of two ways: negative stress or positive stress. Both categories have radical implications on our bodies, but in two very different ways. The key is tuning into how we utilize stress to our advantage.
The effect of negative stress on the brain.
When chronic overwhelming stress comes from situations that are out of our control and not driven by our own chosen purpose, it's classified as negative stress. Bad stress not only affects our ability to function, our decision making, and our moods, it also forces the hypothalamus—a region of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system and the secretion of hormones by the pituitary gland—into a frenzied state. Stress causes the brain to release adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones that can wreak havoc: This stress response increases inflammation, impairs brain processes, and overloads the thyroid, causing both short- and long-term damage to our health.
Positive stress and brain health.
Good stress is largely driven by our purpose or the goals we set for ourselves. This kind of stress comes when the end result is actually a positive, but there are challenges and some opposition along the way. It's more within our control, and we have the opportunity to create timelines and set our goals.
An example of this purpose-driven stress is finishing a degree in school. The end result will open doors, but in order to arrive, you have to embark on a journey that is at times stressful with exams and deadlines. Positive stress sends your neural-endocrine axis on an entirely different journey than negative stress—one that strengthens brain health by creating additional neuro-connections and reducing inflammation. Positive stress can actually be the strongest link in the chain to protecting your long-term brain health.
5 steps to better stress management.
Given that stress can be either positive or negative, what does it mean to "manage" stress? To start, people need to stop lumping all stress into the same category. The idea is to reduce negative stress and increase positive stress, which is currently an undervalued and overlooked skill. So how do we effectively categorize and manage stress to preserve and protect our brains? Here are five steps for a total stress management makeover:
The most powerful thing you can do to gain control over your stress is to identify what it is that is stressing you out. Put pen to paper and write it down. Don’t skimp on this process; sometimes we have to dig deep to figure out what is causing the most stress in our lives.
Categorize the stresses you’ve identified as positive or negative. Remember that bad stress is often caused by those predicaments that happen to us or don’t add to the bottom line value of our life (blown tire on a new car), while good stressors are often introduced by us to improve some area of life (training for a marathon).
We know that there's going to be some of both types of stress in our lives, which is why it's important to pay attention to what we can control and what is out of our control. It's important to prioritize your stress to see what bad stresses you might be able to get rid of or table for the moment, what has to stay, and where we can stand to add more positive stress to our lives to improve our sense of purpose and long-term health. It's all about sorting through the stressors in our lives in an organized way—and constantly reevaluating our overall stress levels.
4. Decrease negative stress.
Any optional negative stressors should be alleviated. Can you make changes in a toxic work environment? Can you change your budget to downgrade financial burdens? Are there unhealthy relationships that need severing? We should explore each and every negative stressor in our lives and decide if there is anything we can do to decrease its destruction or eradicate it altogether.
5. Increase positive stress.
While negative stress can compromise our health, positive stress is vital for us to prosper. Where and how can we add positive stress to our lives? There are three pillars of positive stress that can help you explore this further.
- Complexity: These are multidimensional, real-life activities that involve multiple aspects of our brain at once—visuospatial, problem-solving, language, short-term recall, judgment, calculation. Any time we take a class, read a book, or learn something new, we add complex positive stress to our lives. Is there a new learning challenge on which you could embark?
- Challenge: Participating in complex activities can become very easy after a while. Similar to how we have to increase the amount of weight that we lift in order to get the body stronger, we have to increase the strain on our minds and bodies to continue to get better at something. Whether it is physical or mental, what could you challenge and take to the next level?
- Purpose: Our purpose is the engine behind all of our activities; and it's all about our long-term life goals. What do you want out of your life and what mini goals can you set to get there? These activities generate profound amounts of positive stress affecting everything from the limbic system (emotions) to the hypothalamus and pituitary (neural/endocrine), to immune/inflammatory response.
Nothing is more protective to the brain than positive stress, and nothing is more damaging to our lives than negative stress. While negative stress is often unavoidable, there's always room in our lives to pare down and restructure our stress for the best possible brain health.