Your Brain On Stress

Another reason to stress about getting stressed: Chronic stress triggers the formation of insoluble tau protein aggregates in the brain cells of mice. New research from the lead author of the study, Dr. Robert Rissman, the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, sees this as an explanation for the high correlation between chronic stress and an aging population whose brains are not plastic enough to cope with the inflammation of stress the way a younger brain can – this means Alzheimer’s Disease. Note that Alzheimer’s disease process begins decades earlier, so it is important for any adult to nip stress in the bud.

In exposing mice to comparable emotional chronic stress experienced by humans, Rissman found an altered solubility in tau proteins in neurons, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s.  In addition, this disease pathology was first observed in the hippocampus where memories are organized and stored. When patients are evaluated for Alzheimer’s, “the hippocampus is typically the first region of the brain affected by tau pathology and the hardest-hit, with substantial cell death and shrinkage.”

The study clarifies the difference between acute and chronic stress. Acute stress does not do any lasting damage to brain cells and may actually keep cells “on their toes” and more flexible. However,  chronic stress because of its duration, day in day out, unleashes an inflammatory response which triggers brain cell pathology. Chronic stress erodes happiness and depletes energy.  I have personally experienced and observed chronic stress in caregivers, especially Alzheimer’s caregivers.

Don’t let this research stress you out. Instead, see it as a call to action. Along with exercise, a balanced meal plan and intellectual stimulation, stress management coping strategies should be part of a healthy living program – especially relevant in light of this new research in Alzheimer’s prevention: Always easier to prevent than to treat.

Here are 5 coping tips:

  • Move stress out of your body and the mind will follow. Put on your sneakers and walk out the door; turn on the music and dance; housework counts as long as you do it with alacrity.  Strength train your brain.
  •  Watch comedies which lower blood pressure, and make the carotid artery more flexible according to heart healthy medical studies. Also, comedies help you reframe your life into a sit-com helping you take your problems more lightly.
  •  Make sure to take some time for yourself every day which means shedding a task or two from the endless to-do list. You are not last on the list!
  •  Meditate or visualize while you breathe deeply according to your own natural rhythm. Meditation relaxes the mind and creates greater neuro-plasticity – and you can give yourself a positive message which you need to hear. Think it,  do it and become it!
  •  Find a creative outlet where you lose track of time and space – this is where you find joy and passion.
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About Debbie Mandel

I'm an author, stress management specialist, and my latest book is "Addicted to Stress: A Woman's 7 Step Program to Reclaim Joy and Spontaneity in Life" (Wiley, Sept. 2008). Also, I host a weekly radio show and run an educational site where you can learn more about building immunity to feeling bad: www.turnonyourinnerlight.com