If you’re like most people, you probably feel stressed fairly frequently. Whether you’re constantly aiming to meet deadlines at work or spending all your time taking care of family responsibilities, it may feel like the pressures of life are taking a real toll on your well-being. Further, you’ll likely be well aware of the connection between chronic stress and an increased risk of everything from heart disease to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. However, the good news is that you have the power to change how you respond, enhancing your ability to adapt to things that once caused intense anxiety. Here are seven way to make your brain more resilient to stress.
1. Exercise More Often
You may have heard some of your friends swear by exercise when it comes to clearing the mind and battling stress. However, you don’t merely need to rely on anecdotal evidence—studies show that aerobic exercise (like running, cycling and swimming) actively builds new connections in the brain that help to counteract stress and protect cognitive function.
For example, one research project showed that people who barely exercise experience more stress-induced degeneration in the brain area responsible for memory. The endorphins (i.e. “feel good” chemicals) produced in response to exercise also make you feel better about yourself, promote restful sleep and increase motivation. Further, exercise inhibits the release of cortisol—a key stress hormone that can cause neuronal damage.
2. Hone In On The Positive
Scientists working on resilience to stress have noted that experiencing stress-related anxiety on daily basis activities the neural pathways of fear. In short, the more time you spend responding to potential stressors with worry, the more that feeling stressed becomes your brain’s “default” setting. When looking at fMRI scans, experts have seen that more resilient people seemingly shut off the fear response to stress very quickly, letting go and moving on to focus on something else—something less negative.
The key idea here is that if you can train yourself to think more positively, developing strong but realistic optimism that facilitates letting go of stressors before they cause intense anxiety. For example, you might keep a positivity journal and challenge yourself to write down ten things that make you feel happy, inspired or grateful each day, or you might try reciting positive affirmations every morning before work.
3. Seek Support
Researchers looking at the impact of stress on the brain also emphasize the importance of using social support to enhance resilience. Human connection can inspire you to overcome even the most challenging of obstacles, providing you with empathy, comfort and a much-needed alternative perspective.
Oxytocin (which is sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” due to its connection with both romance and breastfeeding) is released when people are close to someone who cares about them, and the brain’s fear pathways begin to deactivate. Social support, then, has a profound neurological impact that helps you bounce back from stress.
Relatedly, having a good laugh with a friend (or even watching a funny film) can inhibit the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. Studies show that even reflecting on an amusing story or memory can reduce neurological indications of stress.
5. Focus On What You Can Change
Stressing about hypothetical outcomes that worry you will rarely stop them from coming to pass, but it will activate those aforementioned neural pathways of fear. When you catch yourself obsessing about something that you can’t change or influence, make a concentrated effort to turn your mind to something you can influence. Whether it’s completing some outstanding tasks or tackling a significant but solvable problem, you’ll regain your sense of control. The resulting empowerment can assist you in disconnecting from those feelings of helplessness that characterize a lack of resilience to stress.
6. Enjoy Nature
Nature also has a profound influence on mental health, reducing stress levels and enhancing cognitive skills like memory and concentration. If there is a beautiful park nearby or you can take a short drive to reach the countryside, taking advantage of these green spaces could help you to let go of stress before it fully takes hold.
7. Practice Mindfulness
Finally, almost every article you read on mental health and general well-being will encourage you to try mindfulness exercises, but for good reason. Scientific research on how the brain responds to mindfulness shows significant changes, including an improvement in effective decision-making and increased amounts of gray matter in the hippocampus. This latter development indicates a brain more resilient to stress, while those whose brains are damaged by chronic stress sometimes experience the opposite change—a smaller hippocampus.
If you want to start practicing mindfulness, begin by taking ten minutes a day to focus on slow, deep breathing. Let passing thoughts drift by without judgment, and notice how much more present, calm and focused you feel after the exercise. Once you’re used to this simple form of mindfulness, you can move on to more creative visualization exercises that focus on mental images or journeys.