Be Plastic: Rewire Your Brain to Better Deal with Stress

Jennifer Thew, RN

Jennifer Thew, RN


There are days when I look around my house think, “If this was a public place, the health department would shut it down.”

Keeping the cat hair, dust bunnies and children’s toys at bay is a constant challenge. I have a full-time job, a commute and a 16-month-old daughter. Fortunately, my husband helps with laundry, cooking and childcare. Still, trying to manage work, family and the household can be challenging and stressful.

I’m not the only woman feeling stressed these days. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2011 survey, one in four women said they weren’t doing enough to manage stress. Chronic stress can lead to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression and anxiety says the National Institute of Mental Health.

So now you’re probably thinking, “Great, one more thing to be stressed about—stress!”

Don’t fret just yet. Getting a handle on stress is possible thanks to a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.

Just what is neuroplasticity? It’s the concept that our brains have the ability to change their structure, function and neural pathways in response to internal or external stimulus. Just like you can change the size and definition of your biceps by lifting weights, you can also “exercise” your brain to strengthen it against stress.

Scientists at the University of Oregon have found that the brains of subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation show an increase in nerve fiber density and report positive changes in their mood after four weeks of meditation.

Other types of meditation, like compassion meditation and activities like yoga, Tai Chi and relaxation, can also rewire our brains to better cope with stress. And to see the results of a cerebral workout, you don’t have to quit your job and head-off to an ashram in the Himalayas.

University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson has compared the brain structure and function of novice meditators to those of Tibetan Buddhist monks with an average of 19,000 hours mediation experience.  While not as intense as the monks, the novices were also able to increase activity in the part of the brain that regulates feelings of compassion.

So how do you start fending off stress by working out your brain? I definitely don’t fall into the expert meditator category but I have picked up a few tips on my quest to deal with life’s stressors.  Here’s what I’ve learned along the way:

  • There are many styles of meditation, yoga and relaxation but don’t worry about picking one. You’ll eventually find what works for you.
  • Give yourself a learning curve. It’s tempting to want to “do it right,” but in the beginning just doing it is enough.
  • Be consistent. Try to do it at the same time and same place everyday. That way it will become a habit like brushing your teeth.
  • Start small. Three to five minutes is a good time frame to start with. You wouldn’t run a marathon your first time out running.
  • Pause to pay attention to your thoughts and feelings during the day. Take a few deep breaths and notice if you are feeling tense, impatient or happy. Stoplights are a great place to practice this technique.

Learn more about neuroplasticity and mediation.

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