Stressing about Brain Health

By Steve Baldridge

We hear it everywhere, “stress is killing us bit by bit”. Stress makes us too fat or too thin. Stress makes us sad, anxious, depressed, or angry. Stress keeps us awake at night and sleepy during the day. Stress has been linked to fibromyalgia, autoimmune diseases of every kind, increased blood pressure, decreased libido, and all sorts of memory issues. Yet all is not as simple as it seems at first.

It turns out that the right kinds of stress in the right amounts for the right period of time has been shown to help improve symptoms of every single condition mentioned above. Today, we will focus on memory.

Our brains are remarkably designed to run as efficiently as possible. They thrive on routine because when a brain finds predictable patterns in our daily routine it can filter out distractions and run on autopilot, which saves energy. Do you remember when you learned to drive, or ride a bike, or run your new phone? At first it took a lot of mental energy because everything was new. Your brain could not yet find a predictable pattern in the activity so you had to concentrate. Even when you first understood the process it was not a mindless habit yet. It took energy because your brain was paying attention to details. Now you can do these things without thinking. Let me repeat, you can do these things without thinking. The problem is, if you do enough things in your life routinely, without thinking, your brain tends to assume there will be no new situations today. Then you forget where you put your keys because your brain was assuming there would be no new information today. You did not remember your appointment for lunch with your friend today because there is not a routine appointment for lunch with your friend. Your brain ignored the unusual because it was only expecting routine. At least this is a working theory.

Stressor number one that is good for your brain and therefore good for your memory is to give your brain something new to do. Routinely break your routines. Learn something purely cerebral. Learn something tactile. Learn something that you don’t know. Do something routine in an unusual way. Alert your brain that “vacation is over and we had all better pay attention because there will be a test!” Try something simple. If you are right handed, brush your teeth with your left hand. Put your keys in the other pants pocket for a few days. “Brain, pay attention!” Try something as complicated a learning a new language – I’m trying my hand at Greek. No, it’s not going well, but that’s the point. I’m doing something that makes my brain pay attention. It could be something as simple as counting the change in your pocket by touch alone. This tells you brain to pay more attention to tactile stimulation. Smell a new smell. Taste a new taste. “Brain, pay attention!” When we practice this our brains tend to stay more alert to everything going on. Not crazy hyperactive alert but a notch or two above lethargic. Then I remember where I put my keys because by brain was paying more attention to life in general.

A second stressor that may be beneficial for our brains is something you already know is good for you – physical activity. This type of stress improves blood flow for the entire body, including the brain. It also causes the body to make and release the chemicals responsible for repairing the connections between neurons in the brain. Better connections in the brain helps the brain function better. Why not go for a walk after supper instead of turning on the TV. You don’t need more of that kind of mindless, and usually aggravating, stress anyway.

When you walk pay attention to the wind rustling in the leaves, the birds sing, and the feel of the sun (or rain) on your skin. These all help decrease the bad stressors, and increases those “Brain, pay attention!” stressors which are so beneficial. If you walk and talk with a friend, that stimulates your brain in a good way. If you listen to calming or uplifting music, an audio book or informative podcast – like Greek pronunciations in my case – you are giving your brain good stress while reducing the bad stress. That sounds like a win-win to me.

From the food we eat to the light bulbs we use at night, here is so much more to learn about brain health. Why don’t you join me Tuesday, August 13 for “Memory Mending and Brain Building” as we look at some additional ideas researchers are suggesting may help us keep our wits about us a while longer? We will meet at 5:30 p.m. in the UH Administrative Services Building, 663 East Main Street in Ashland. If possible, please register for this FREE program by calling 419-207-2563 or email Steven.Baldridge@UHhospitals.org.

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