A little bit of worry is rarely a problem. If anything, it can act as a motivator to help an individual push forward and accomplish new goals. Nearly everyone experiences stress at one time or another. However, what happens when these anxieties keep growing, and expanding to unreasonable heights that become persistent on a daily basis? Chronic stress can have many negative effects on the brain but luckily, there are several established coping techniques to help manage it better.
A 2010 study published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry found that chronic stress could negatively affect spatial learning in rodents on appetitively-motivated tasks. In short, the mice that were going through a maze in pursuit of a food reward performed worse when under stress. This reflects the impact it can have on learning and memory. CNN further reported on a University of Iowa study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience this week, which also showed that stress hormone cortisol could impair short-term memory in older adults.
Furthermore, chronic stress could have long-term effects as well. Research at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that while excessive worry could increase the development of white matter, helpful for sending messages between the different parts of the brain, it also decreases the number of neurons involved in the process. In effect, the brain’s internal communication could be impaired, making it more vulnerable to developing mental illnesses. Defects in white matter have been connected to a number of issues, such as depression, bipolar, obsessive-compulsive disorder or even schizophrenia.
These and many other studies seem to suggest that chronic stress could reduce certain cognitive abilities and overall health. However, there are several good stress coping techniques for relieving the negative effects. Mayo Clinic suggests making management of the condition an ongoing goal, monitoring the progress day-to-day. It is crucial to begin identifying stress triggers, situations and thoughts that evoke the negative reaction in the body. This is not necessarily limited to huge and important events, such as job pressure or relationship troubles. Even small daily hassles, chores or positive events (such as marriage) can add up to the overall stress level. Journaling can be an effective (and sometimes even relaxing) way of tracking the mood.
Once those events and situations have been recognized, one can start developing strategies for coping and decreasing the mental pressure. HelpGuide lists the four A’s of coping. First is avoidance. If a distressing or heated debate on the evening news makes it hard to fall asleep, it might be wise to remove the stressor for a while. Second is altering the stressor. For instance, one can try expressing bad feelings instead of bottling them up or learning to compromise better in relationship problems. Third is adapting. This requires reframing the problems and looking at the big picture, asking oneself if the given worrisome event will make a big difference in the grand scheme of things. Lastly comes accepting the stressor and letting the negative feelings wash over without panically reacting to them. While it might sound a bit paradoxical, as feelings become more familiar, they will no longer be as scary or controlling.
It is also important to take a break from stress management and leave some time for fun and relaxing tasks. Even something as simple as going for a walk or playing with a pet can take the mind off of anxious thoughts. It provides much-needed relief and recharges the cognitive batteries. Many other small changes can also have a compounding effect. Regular exercise, healthy diet, reduced caffeine and getting adequate sleep have often been linked to mood improvements.
Meditation, deep breathing or muscle relaxation exercises can also prove beneficial, although it often requires a week or two of continuous effort before the effects becomes noticeable. Should the mentioned techniques prove ineffective, consulting a therapist is beneficial; after all, these trained professionals have spent years, if not decades, mastering the necessary coping skills and can often offer hands-on techniques much more effectively than books and online articles.
According to the Northwestern National Life survey reported by the CDC, some 40 percent of workers report their jobs as extremely stressful. Chronic and seemingly overwhelming worry affects many individuals both in the U.S. and across the world. Understanding the memory and cognitive effects of stress and practicing coping techniques such as identifying triggers and the four A’s, can be helpful for improving health and everyday quality of life.
By Jakub Kasztalski