We've seen how stress makes you anxious and depressed.
So what can you do about it? How can you stop the effects of stress on your brain?
Here's the short answer: do things that keep your brain flexible.
Do new things, make new connections, stretch past your comfort zone.
It seems there is quite a bit you can do to manage stress and reduce anxiety. By managing stress, you prevent the massive release of cortisol that is part of your body's stress response. (Prevention is the best strategy if you can do it!) And... it's easier to deal with stress if you catch it before it gets to be a problem.... before it turns into full-blown anxiety.
But these techniques are still good no matter where in the stress process you might be.
Here are some strategies suggested by Gregory Kellett of SFSU, writing in Sharp Brains. (This article is from 2008, but the information still holds good.)
Manage stress to overcome anxiety and depression
1. Get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation has been to shown to sensitize the brain regions responsible for our reacting to situations via fight/flight….giving us a hair trigger of sorts. During sleep cortisol levels drop as feel/heal mechanisms dominate (with the exception of the brief spurts of rapid eye movement). People who do not get enough sleep not only get more exposure to cortisol during the night, but also have higher resting levels of this stress hormone during the day. Catching that first wave of fatigue in the evening instead of pushing through towards that “second wind” is usually the best way to guarantee getting the sleep our brains and bodies need.
2. Learn breathing methods to stay calm
The fascinating thing about breathing is that, although it works predominantly without our conscious awareness, it is one of the few parts of our autonomic nervous system that we can easily exert conscious control over. In fact, the simple act of purposefully taking three or more long slow deep breaths has the ability to shift our autonomic nervous system away from reactive, sympathetic fight/flight dominance towards more relaxed parasympathetic feel/heal activity. This enables the body’s cortisol levels to drop, again protecting the brain from prolonged exposure.
3. Protect yourself from stress with healthy exercise
Breaking a sweat in the form of exercise has multiple positive effects when it comes to protecting the brain from the onslaught of excessive stress. First off, exercise increases the overall tone of our parasympathetic (feel/heal) workings. This translates into a better ability to relax with all the associated benefits. As previously mentioned, prolonged exposure to stressful situations can inhibit the brain’s ability to generate new neurons (neurogenesis). Exercise by contrast has been proven to promote neurogenesis, counterbalancing damage experienced under times of sustained “non-relaxation”. In addition, regular exercise has been shown to enhance healthy sleep, thereby also supporting the benefits of sleep discussed above.
These methods might sound simple, but they work. If you want to manage stress and overcome anxiety and depression, these simple strategies should make up the foundation of your program.
No, it's not always easy to get enough sleep, once anxiety or depression have taken hold.
Breathing, however, is something you can can practice to get control of your emotional state. (Check out our resources section for some practical information about breathing methods for anxiety.)
Exercise too is something you can do for yourself. It's a great starting point for any program to overcome anxiety - read more here.
Begin with something simple and easy - like walking. Or, if you have more energy, run... or swim, or go cycling, or work out at the gym - anything at all, as long as it gets your heart racing in a healthy way. That will begin to use up some of those stress chemicals in the way they were meant to be used, & get you beginning to feel better.
The other simple practice that can make a huge difference to your brain and your emotional state is meditation.