My 13th book, Best Future You, is out!
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be posting excerpts from the book and blogging frequently about the main concept in the book – which is the idea of harnessing your body’s internal cellular biochemistry to achieve true balance in body, mind, and spirit – and in doing so, help you to become your “Best Future You” in terms of how you look, how you feel, and how you perform on every level.
Chapter 6 – Feel Your Best
Your Brain on Stress
Chronic stress not only emotionally and functionally affects the brain, but it can also lead to direct physical changes in this most important organ. Research has shown that chronic stress not only increases the incidence of such simple effects as “moodiness,” “brain fog,” or irritability but can also eventually progress to the development of such physical impairments as full-blown memory loss and dementia. Each of these conditions involves a degree of mental deterioration characterized by damage to and death of nerve cells in the brain. And it has been estimated that as many as 30 to 50 percent of adults in industrialized countries suffer from these degenerative brain conditions. That’s a very high percent of the 65 to 90 percent of adults in industrialized countries who suffer from enough chronic stress to result in any detrimental health condition—not just “psychological” or “brain-related” conditions.
The changes in mood that accompany periods of heightened stress also bring reduced energy levels, feelings of fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate, and feelings of depression—all of which are related to the same class of brain chemicals, the neurotransmitters. Most notable (and scary), perhaps, are the findings that chronic stress can lead to actual physical changes in the arrangement of the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. In other words, we’re talking now about stress being able to exert changes not just in the biochemistry and function or the brain, but directly on the physical structure of your brain.
People suffering from depression are a classic example of elevated cellular stress, with disrupted biochemical balance in hormones, such as cortisol/testosterone, and in brain neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. The people who are under the highest levels of cellular stress also tend to be the ones who succumb to periods of moderate depression.
So, if cellular stress can change the function and structure of your brain, wouldn’t it be cool if brain function could “push” the other way to influence cellular stress? Well, it can. Sports psychologists have known for decades that athletes can use “mental imagery” (basically, thinking about their events) to improve mental and physical performance. Elite-level athletes routinely train their bodies for strength, speed, and agility—and the very best of the best also train their minds and their emotions for optimal performance. The average person has little understanding or appreciation for the fact that it is possible to train and to sculpt mental circuits just as biceps or buttocks can be shaped. The process is a little more complex than the simplistic “think and grow rich” platitudes that you hear from some self-help gurus, but the general idea is similar. Like sand on a beach or snow on a ski slope, the brain bears the footprints or ski tracks of the decisions that you make, the experiences that you have, and the thoughts that you think. In response to the experiences and actions that you undergo, your brain strengthens the neural connections involved in these experiences and weakens those that are less frequently used. This poses important possibilities for those individuals who are troubled by depression or anxiety, making it possible to “rewire” those areas of the brain (those “pathological” connections) and establish new, better, and healthier connections that lead them away from burnout and toward vigor. Think of “problems”—such as depression, anxiety, fatigue, or burnout—as issues that involve biochemical balance and cellular stress. Rebalancing your internal biochemistry and relieving cellular stress, helps restore mood, energy, and mental focus to help us feel, look, and perform at our best.
Thanks for reading – be sure to tune in for the next installment about, “What Does Energy Mean To You?”