How to Train Your Brain to Stress Less
Research shows you can actually shrink your amygdala.
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While your body can benefit from short-term stressors, chronic stress can lead to health problems such as depression, heart disease, and weight gain. Avoiding triggers like flight delays and tight deadlines is impossible but we can control our response to those things and condition our brains to react in a more peaceful manner.
What Causes the Level of Response to Stress
Not everyone reacts in the same manner for a given stressor. According to Dr. Melanie Greenberg, author of The Stress-Proof Brain, biology plays a role. Some people are genetically more anxiety- or threat-sensitive, explains Greenberg. For others, an overactive amygdala (the part of the brain that is responsible for setting off the “fight-or-flight” response) could be the culprit.
In addition to nature, nurture is also important. Those that experience what Greenberg calls 'adverse childhood events' (such as witnessing family violence, the death of a family member, or being bullied) can be more physiologically and psychologically reactive to stress decades later. This is because when a set of neurons gets activated, they become more closely linked. Thus, the whole sequence is more likely to repeat as a reaction to even harmless perceived stressors. However, this automatic response is something that can be changed. “You can literally rewire your brain,” says Greenberg.
How Can We Be More Resilient to Stress
“Your brain has the ability to regenerate and heal itself through a process known as neuroplasticity,” says Greenberg. A recent study conducted by Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center, showed that people who have more neuroplasticity in the prefrontal cortex were less likely respond to stress in an emotionally destructive way and more likely to cope in a better way, says Sinha.
Here, three ways to exercise your brain to positively handle stress.
Doing so can help slow down the amygdala long enough so that the prefrontal cortex can do its job. While the amygdala acts solely as an on/off switch to alert you of danger, the prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps regulate your emotional response to stress. When you face the stress of running a race, for example, your prefrontal cortex reminds you of how passionate you are about the sport and how exciting it will be to PR. Research shows that practicing mindfulness (think: breathing exercises or focusing on your surroundings) for 30 minutes per day can shrink your amygdala, thus modifying your reaction to stress.
Be a Planner
Research shows that if you perceive control of a situation, you’ll feel less stressed over it. While some outcomes will be uncertain (you can’t control the weather on race day), make a plan to address the controllable aspects (create a training plan, map out your nutrition strategy) and regularly check-in to keep yourself accountable.
Look at the Bright Side
Flipping the script and thinking about how stress can be helpful is a way to train your brain to respond better to it. Studies have found that interpreting feelings of anxiety as excitement may actually help boost your mood and performance. Think about a specific stressor you’re facing and ask yourself how it could be beneficial. For instance, it may provide you with opportunities to learn new skills or make you a better leader.