Stress reduction and the brain

Professor Bruce McEwen describes steps that can reduce stress, including sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet. The brain is the central organ of stress and differentiates positive, tolerable, and toxic stress.

Well, let’s talk a little about what we mean by stress, because I think it’s important. We’ve got positive stress, when you have a sense of exhilaration in it for a challenge, and you generally can achieve what you want to do. Then you have tolerable stress, where something really bad happens, but you can weather the storm because you have good social support mechanisms, you have good resilience, you have a good sense of self-esteem, and so forth, and you can get through it. Then you have what’s called toxic stress, which, just as it implies, causes damage or pathophysiology, because you’re not in a position where you can handle it. You’re out of control – sense of control, you don’t have support systems, and it’s a self-generating situation, where you may eat too many of the wrong things, smoke, drink, not sleep very well, as well as feel anxious and stressed out every day, and these wear and tear on the body and brain, and cause the dysregulation of, for example, too much cortisol or too little cortisol. A lot of inflammatory products, a lot of sympathetic activation, so a lot of adrenaline, not enough of the parasympathetic system, which tends to slow the heart down and quell inflammation. That dysregulation can lead, over long periods of time, to something that we call allostatic load, which is a wear and tear on the body, and what can help it? Well, physical activity is very beneficial, because it helps to rebalance the system. Getting a good night’s sleep, which is sometimes easier said than done if you’re worried, is also a very beneficial activity. Controlling diet, of course we all know that controlling that, controlling alcohol and smoking and things of that sort, and, above all else, having good social support, not becoming isolated, all of these things are things that the brain processes. I mean, in a sense, the brain is the central organ of stress, and what we think and how we feel, especially if we’re optimistic, pessimistic, if we feel totally stressed out and out of control, determines the balance of all of these physiologic systems that, over time, can do us in, basically.

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