Stressed Out? Rewire Your Brain for Calm

Have you been feeling stressed lately?  Chances are you have. 
 
One recent Gallup poll showed that the percent of people in America experiencing stress has grown to nearly 80%; half of whom reported being “very or extremely stressed.” 

A client recently asked me if I ever feel stressed.  Absolutely!  I must confess that running my own medical practice can cause me a fair amount of stress, sometimes.  You, me, and virtually everyone today lives with some form of stress, yet most people don’t realize how profoundly it can affect their health.
 
What is Stress?
First, let’s define what stress is not – it’s not the actual events in your life.  Events are simply events.  Stress is not what happens to you – it’s how your body reacts to those events.  When you are faced with a stressful situation, your body produces a “stress response” to give you a boost of energy to deal with the situation.  In evolutionary terms, this “fight or flight” response, produced by the sympathetic nervous system, is what helped us escape from that hungry saber tooth tiger that was eying us for dinner.
 
The Good and the Bad
A certain amount of stress is good for us and the stress response is essential to life because it allows us to deal with the numerous challenges that arise in our ever-changing modern day world.  But stress hormones are designed to work well over a short period of time for acute – not chronic – stress.  What's more, it is the primitive part of our brain which controls our sympathetic response, and it cannot make the distinction between a real threat, such as that pesky tiger, or a mind-made threat, such as worrying about losing your job.
 
As you can imagine, most of us today spend far too much time in a sympathetic state. Whether the cause is our ever increasing fast-paced lifestyle, our job, our relationships, the traffic, bills, etc., the effect is the same:  high levels of cortisol and adrenaline – two hormones produced by our adrenal glands – that can lead to health problems such as hormonal imbalance, poor sleep, impaired memory, depression, premature aging, muscle loss and fat gain.  Ouch!
 
What You Can Do to Control Stress
Classic stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, walking in nature, and leisure activities (reading, listening to music, hobbies, etc.) can be very helpful and are all things I regularly recommemd to my patients.  Something I like to do is head to a cafe with a favorite magazine or two.  While reading Outside magazine a few months back I was intrigued by an article by Kate Siber describing a new approach to beat stress.  For the article she interviewed Don Joseph Goewey, a leader in the field of stress management, and author of Mystic Cool, an excellent thoroughly researched book on how to transcend stress.


Neuroplasticity - The New Science
According to Goewey, many studies over the past decade have shown that it’s possible to increase blood flow to certain areas of your brain, create new neurons, and strengthen neural pathways simply by directing your thoughts.  That does sound cool, huh?  Neuroplasticity, as this phenomenon is called, has been used to treat such disorders as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and even dyslexia.  Now stress management experts like Goewey have begun developing mental exercises to alleviate a more widespread affliction:  stress. 
 
Just think, you can literally rewire your brain and over time reverse the ill effects of stress just by learning a new way of thinking. More evidence that the most powerful pharmacy you have is between your ears! 
 
Tips and Exercises
For more tips on you can reduce stress in the Great Outdoors, check out these articles:
1. How Meditation Can Make You Happier
2. Slashing Your Stress Levels in the Great Outdoors
3. Show Me How You Breathe - I'll Show You How You Live

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