As summer flies by, many of us are looking forward to taking a vacation in August. After a stressful year of economic turmoil, it is important for our general well-being to relax. It is also essential for our brain fitness to reduce stress. While stress has the temporary benefit of keeping us alert, it releases cortisol, which negatively impacts long-term memory and other functions of the brain. According to the article “This is Your Brain on Stress” in the first issue of the magazine from BrainWorld, “The stress response is a necessary, healthy part of life that has kept people alive in the face of danger for millions of years.” However, the fact that we often do not effectively manage our stress and that we are now frequently exposed to situations that evoke the stress response means that we are constantly in a state of fight-or-flight, causing an elevated level of cortisol in the body at all times. Not only does too much cortisol lead to high blood pressure, it also makes it difficult to retrieve old memories or form new ones. This is because “prolonged exposure to cortisol interferes with the production of cells in the hippocampus, an important region in our brains for coping with emotions and consolidating new memories.” This is even more of an issue for older adults, who have lost about 20% of the neurons in the hippocampus already. On top of all that, stress makes it challenging to sleep, which also negatively impacts the brain.
How are you managing your stress levels this summer? I would love to hear your strategies in this particularly stressful time.