A recent article published in Scientific American reports on an animal study that shows that a single, socially stressful situation can destroy newly created neurons in the hippocampus, the brain region involved in memory and emotion.
Although most of the brain stops growing by adulthood, new nerve cells are continually generated in the hippocampus, where they are essential for learning. Scientists have long known that chronic stress can inhibit this neurogenesis (new nerve cell growth) and lead to anxiety and depression.
Overexposure to stress hormones, especially cortisol, causes memory impairment as well as long-term brain damage which can lead to dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.
Chronic stress causes too much cortisol to be produced and the end result is that the brain shrinks and many brain nerve cell connections breakdown and malfunction.
We have the ability to change our habits and put into place life changing stress management tools and strategies that allow our body to self-repair. Some suggestions to reduce cortisol levels include:
Harvard physician Herbert Benson extensively studied a form of Transcendental Meditation proven to activate the relaxation response and improve dozens of health conditions ranging from heart disease to diabetes to obesity to cancer. All forms of meditation activate the relaxation response.
- Laugh more
In his bestselling book The Anatomy of An Illness, Norman Cousins tells the story of how he cured himself from the debilitating condition ankylosing spondylitis by laughing along with Marx Brothers movies. He wrote, “I made the joyous discovery that ten minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anaesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep. When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.”
- Play with animals
Snuggling with our pets fills us with oxytocin, endorphins, and other healing hormones that support the body’s self-healing mechanisms. This is why pet therapy can be so effective, both mentally and physically.
- Give generously
After 9 heart surgeries, Andy Mackey’s doctors had him on 15 medications, but the side effects made him miserable. He decided to stop all his medications and spend his remaining days feeling as good as he could. His doctors said he would die within a year, so Andy decided to do something he had always wanted to do. He decided to use the money he would have spent on his heart medicines to buy 300 harmonicas for children, with lessons. And when he didn’t die the next month, he bought a few hundred more. It’s now 11 years and 16,000 harmonicas later and Andy Mackey is still giving generously.
- Express yourself creatively.
Creative expression releases endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure, slowing down your breathing and lowering cortisol.
- Practice yoga or tai chi or similar
All of these modalities, which combine the benefits of exercise and meditation, steep you in healing hormones and have been proven to effectively drop cortisol levels and improve your body’s ability to heal itself.
- Get it on
Those with healthy sex lives live longer, have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, get less breast cancer, enjoy the benefits of stronger immune systems, sleep better, appear more youthful, enjoy improved fitness, have enhanced fertility, get relief from chronic pain, experience fewer migraines, suffer from less depression, and enjoy an improved quality of life and their cortisol levels are lower.
- Alleviate your loneliness.
Lonely people have twice the rate of heart disease as people who aren’t lonely. In fact, loneliness researchers suggest that alleviating your loneliness is more important to a healthy lifestyle than quitting smoking or starting to exercise.