Traditional thinking is that stress is harmful to your health – it makes people physically ill, damages your immune system, destroys your mental wellbeing and is bad for the heart.
In other words, most people think stress should be avoided as much as possible because of the negative impact it can have on their lives. The problem with this is that it’s quite impractical, our modern lives are simply stressful, and there’s no way around that.
A study in the US conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Co. followed 30,000 men and women for eight years. It found that those with stressful lives had a 43% higher chance of dying young. Interestingly, this only correlated to those who also believed that stress had negative health effects.
Those who viewed stress positively were actually no more likely to die young than people who experienced little stress over the eight year period. They even had a lower risk of dying than the people with little stress. It is a question of whether or not you perceive your stress as a cause for anxiety or not.
It’s not that stress itself is bad for you but the belief that is bad. When we think that we are stressed a part of us knows it and our bodies react accordingly whether consciously or not. The secret, therefore, is not to avoid stress, because that’s just plain impractical.
The secret is to change our mentality about stress and how we respond to it. By embracing the fact that we can’t avoid stress we lessen its impact on our lives. We forbid stress to be in control. We make it less imposing in our minds.
Stress = A Social Enhancer?
Here is another major reason not to fear stress but to embrace it. Did you know that stress makes you more social?
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about an intimacy hormone called Oxytocin (or the ‘hug hormone’). It’s released when we hug or have sex. It acts as a neutrotransmitter, delivering information from the brain to other parts of the body. It can cause a variety of different responses such as lessening pain, sharpening desire and an increased desire to socialise.
It is ingrained in our interaction with other humans around us. Essentially, through evolution, it helped make us a social species that needed interaction with other humans. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it helped us band together and survive dangerous environments.
Socialising is something many people overlook as part of the aging process. Seniors who are more social are less at risk for depression, alcoholism, cancer, heart disease, and have less stress than those who are withdrawn and solitary.
By being social we can actively lower our stress levels. Sometimes this is something that we have to work at, especially if you’re introverted. Studies from top universities, like Harvard, have linked regular socialising to having as much benefit to the body as regular exercise.
Surely you’ve heard about going out together to unwind after a stressful day at work? It’s scientifically proven to improve your level of stress! UCLA also released a study that showed those with more social interaction were less likely to see cognitive decline as they aged, even with as little as 10 minutes of social interaction.
As someone who had an awkward childhood, teenage-hood and even young adulthood I know that this sounds scary. But why cut yourself short from acquiring a powerful asset? Socialising is very, very good for you when you get comfortable with it. The brain is a fluid tool and can be molded and trained to adapt to new things.
One of the biggest red flags of the current generation is that we equate social media with being social. In fact it’s far from it. By sitting ourselves in front of a screen we isolate ourselves from actual interaction with others of our species. We interact with a screen and not with other humans on a direct basis.
This way of life has given rise to the new generation of social media addicts are not making full use of what their brains were meant to do. Social media is the aspartame of socialising. It makes us feel like we’re being social while depriving our bodies of the actual thing that creates the hormones and other benefits our bodies get from being actively social.
Oxytocin is a prime example of this, as we will only release a sliver of the amount through screen interaction as we would with real world interaction. Back to why you shouldn’t fear stress though – did you also know that oxytocin is also a stress hormone?
It’s released in times of high stress to encourage us to seek social help. Oxytocin is released to ensure that the body doesn’t become too inflamed and to help blood vessels dilate under stress. It even strengthens the heart and regenerates heart cells.
Exposing our bodies to oxytocin on a regular cycle has been linked to better circulation and improved heart health. An influx of oxytocin has been linked to reduced cell death, faster healing, and a lowering of inflammation.
What about hormone products? Synthetic oxytocin exists but sadly, it doesn’t work as well. As with all synthetic hormones, they are not as good as the natural ones produced from deep within the body. The pattern with products is that they are expensive and inferior.
People buy them because they seem convenient or out of ignorance. Products can be a supplement but should never replace the lifestyle. In reality there is no supplement to replace real social interaction or one which eliminates mental stress.
You shouldn’t try to eliminate it of course. That only makes it worse. In essence, stress makes you a healthier, more social, happier human. By being stressed our bodies naturally seek out others for interaction as well as releasing beneficial hormones to combat it.
The key here is simply not to experience too much ‘negative stress’ – by constantly worrying about it but to experience ‘positive stress’ where you embrace it as a natural part of life. Stress also causes the release of adrenalin, a fight or flight hormone.
Adrenalin at prolonged elevated levels can actually cause damage to the blood vessels by forcing them to stay dilated and raising your heart rate. This negative stress is what causes damage to your health. Instead of being stressed, simply acknowledge the stressful situation before logically working your way through it.
Most of negative stress is the result of fear. It’s true when they say it’s all in the mind. Say you have a deadline you are you stressed about. Does the fear of failing to hand your work in on time actively make the stress worse? Would you be more productive without that fear? It’s all about adjusting your perception and now you know how to do it.
Fear can be managed and our brains can be trained. Stress is fear so breathe, look at the situation objectively, and consider seeking help from others if it’s more than you can handle.
Remember the wonderful benefits of the oxytocin released in times of stress- it makes you want to socialize and even excel at it. Don’t fear stress! Embrace it!
Prevention vs. Prescription
Western medicine is amazing. However, there is a philosophy of treating the symptoms rather than treating the source. For example, if we are sick then we are prescribed drugs. That’s why there’s a market for synthetic oxytocin for people who’d rather take that than socialize. It might have an effect but it’s certainly not better than the real thing.
The billions of dollars and influence that big pharmaceutical companies have is certainly a reason behind this – I would say it’s the main reason. Sickness is big business and it’s often said that the pharmaceutical industry creates “clients not cures”. It’s true.
Healthy people don’t buy drugs and don’t bring in a profit. Why would drug companies actually want you to be healthy if it meant they lost a repeat customer? It’s a lucrative business.
Many drugs do nothing more than mask the symptoms of disease rather than treating them. You might’ve read the articles on the fact that high flying business types are taking beta-blockers to combat the effects of stress.
They’re not fixing the problem, simply masking it temporarily. We are conditioned to take a pill to solve the problems now and then worry about the root cause at another time.
It’s much, much better to prevent the sickness in advance. Educating yourself on how to improve your wellbeing is the key to lowering the mental and physical stresses in your life. By getting yourself into a better mental state you’re arming yourself with new, powerful tools to tackle the mental stress-fear reaction as well as the physical stress.
You’ll be able to deal with stress in an objective manner. By taking control and preparing yourself to deal with stress objectively you will be less likely to turn up at the doctor’s office because you’re sick. Doctors are a boon from modern civilization but the less you see them the better!
Prevention is the most healthy and money saving solution. Who likes hospital bills anyway? It takes time and initial effort but it’s an investment into your future, your health and your youth.
Meditation to Reduce the Effects of Mental and Physical Stress
Meditation has been shown to affect a variety of physical changes in the body. It even affects telomere shortening. UCLA recently published a study that showed those who practiced meditation over the long term had better preserved brains and increased grey matter when compared to those who did not meditate.
Although there was still some loss with age there was distinctly more preservation. Furthermore, Yale University determined that the part of the brain which causes decreased happiness shrinks and becomes quieter through meditation. Not only that but other studies have shown that through mindful meditation symptoms of anxiety, pain, depression and stress were all reduced.
By meditating we are not only quietening our minds of negative emotions but we are also actively preserving our brain’s pathways. Consider the millions of nerve connections as highways. Every day thousands of cars (neurotransmissions) travel along the highway.
Eventually the road will become pot-holed, degraded, or simply too poor to drive on anymore. By lessening the number of cars we can actively slow this process down. Meditation is this process for your brain. By meditating and quietening the number of messages zipping through our brains we can slow the process of degradation.
Aging is nothing more than the accumulation of damage. If you can decrease the rate at which that damage occurs, then you age more slowly. Meditating is good for slowing mental damage and can even encourage neurogenesis or the production of new neurons in the brain. Sandrine Thuret, a neuroscientist, does a great talk on this on Youtube.
ACT and Mindful Meditation
Now I’ll tell you how to use meditation to improve the quality of your life. There are a plethora of different types of meditation – mantra, silent, musical, active, repetitive, mindful……..the list goes on. The reason I’m going to focus on mindful meditation is that it improves the thought process rather than just quietening the mind.
To completely shut off all thoughts is too steep a change for most people and this type of meditation allows you to play with your thoughts in a beneficial way. Mindful meditation allows you to think about things and is a dedicated room for positive thinking in your brain.
Find yourself a quiet spot where you can sit comfortably. It should be somewhere where you’re not going to be interrupted for 5 minutes –the car, just sitting in your bedroom or even during a shower. Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing.
First just focus on your getting your breathing correct with your belly expanding outwards and down with each breath. Try not to think of anything initially as you breathe in and out.
Now you can allow thoughts to enter your head. I’ve found that my worries are the things which come into the head first. They are at the forefront of the subconscious. What are the things in your life that are toxic?
These could be relationships or finances – general everyday things. Do you feel yourself becoming anxious with each additional thing you think of? Perhaps you never noticed their suffocating effect before. The very act of acknowledging them in your own quiet time is a relief in itself.
A lot of people don’t actually know why they’re worried constantly because they didn’t take the time to meditate on their problems. It’s useful to think of toxicity in two forms – how toxic is your body on the inside and how toxic is it on the outside? The latter is to do with toxic relationships, jobs, pollution and so on.
There are two things you can do from here. There’s a therapy called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which is used successfully to treat depression and anxiety disorders. You view whatever’s troubling you and simply accept it. It’s there.
Excessive worrying won’t make it better. Now that you’ve accepted it, ask yourself objectively what you can do to fix it. By accepting the problem, you learn to stop recycling it uselessly in your head causing more stress and through meditation you are more likely to see how to objectively solve it. From then you commit to the correct course of action.
The other way is a visualizing technique. Focus on the worries one at a time, and then mentally let them go. You have already distanced yourself from them through meditation. Now imagine them as a crumpled ball of paper and simply toss it away.
Use any visualization you find useful. Imagine that particular problem slowly getting more and more compressed until it becomes a black ball. Now compress it even more until it’s the size of a period – ‘.’ Then just let it vanish into nothingness.
Allow the thought to simply flow from your head and back into the universe. Do this with each one. When you’re finished simply focus on your breathing again before coming back to the world around you. Visualization is a powerful technique and one which is trainable.
This will have the added effect of training yourself to breathe properly. It sounds silly but we often forget to breathe right. People can be so stressed that they only take short breaths which never really fill the lungs up over the course of a day.
Remember to breathe deeply and breathe well even if you aren’t meditating. Breathing right will relax you and give you more energy. If you’ve never meditated before you may feel stressed initially and that would be shock. Don’t worry! It’s entirely natural.
What these simple exercises have done is given you a chance to see all the negative things in your life that you need to tackle to get healthy again. What I love about them is that they actually condition you to view your worries as something positive. After a while you realize nearly all worries are excessive and there are always solutions. You become a more positive, healthy human.
If it’s toxic then you either need to let it go or, through simple focus, come to a solution. I’ve made the mistake of holding onto negativity subconsciously. If you leave it, it festers into something worse. Actively being aware of your thoughts is a healthy habit
Fighting Mental Decline with Age
For decades the traditional medical belief was that after a certain age we lose brain cells and don’t produce new ones. This has recently been proven to be false. Sandrine Thuret, a neuroscientist, has an excellent Youtube video with more on the subject.
The brain is the most important yet most poorly understood organ. People are starting to realize the benefits of maintaining it though. That’s why there has been an increase, in recent decades, of brain exercises. In the 2000s this was marked by a Sudoku craze. In the 2010s, apps and computerized programs related to brain fitness are booming.
Where to start though? People overlook the simplest thing. We often walk around in a half awake state without really appreciating life or our senses. Simply being more aware is the easiest way to start increasing brain function. I call this ‘24/7’ meditation.
Remember! A sudden decline in your mental faculties with age is NOT inevitable. Yes your brain begins to change at around the age of 40 and can shrink if it isn’t challenged but that’s just the same of your abs or your biceps. Just as with your muscles, it has to exercise to remain strong.
We can continue to produce new brain cells via neurogenesis even as adults. Improving your focus is a great way of preventing mental decline. I see mindfulness meditation and ACT as ‘boosters’ where you do this in a focused state. 24/7 Meditation is where you’re being as aware and as conscious as you can of your environment. It is a similar but more passive act.
By improving your focus you force your brain to take greater notice of what’s going on, to stop daydreaming. Not only that but by being focused on what is going on in front of you, you will actively be more present in your life.
It’s common for people to drift through life as if through a daydream – waiting in a queue, driving, filling in forms. Practicing awareness is such a cheap, easy solution that I’m amazed more people aren’t aware of it. By living in the moment, you really do enrich your life and exercise your brain.
For example, focus on the environment around you with greater clarity. See colours in more detail and experience all your senses a little bit more. Sometimes it helps at first to close your eyes. Close your eyes and listen to what’s going on around you.
Can you hear birds? The fan? Your kids downstairs? What can you smell? There is so much going on just in your immediate vicinity that you may have either taken for granted or ignored. Have you seen when people have deep passions and get completely absorbed by them? Or people who really live in the moment with a book or a song? That’s the value and happiness that living in the moment can bring to your life. Happiness means more years!
Here’s the thing about time. Not only is it to do with how many years you have but how you perceive it. For a person in their mid-20s, one year doesn’t seem like too much time, but when I was six, one year was a big deal! Each year as a kid was a long time! Like with happiness and health, perception also affects what time you have.
Not only does meditation and exercise add youthfulness to your brain, but these skills also can slow the perception of it. Do you know how people say one day they wake up, realize that 10 years have passed and wonder how they flashed by so fast? One of the biggest ways to experience regret and watch your years flash by is to fail to live in the present.
By focusing on things that happened yesterday or won’t happen weeks from now we often don’t fully experience what’s happening in the NOW . It’s so simple that I was a little shocked. It’s like cheating and will be like adding free years to your life. The cost is $0 and the rewards are staggering.
The simple procedure of being aware in the present has so many benefits. It relaxes you, gives you free years, makes you a more alert person and it keeps your brain strong. When you’re next at your kid’s football game focus on what’s happening.
If you find yourself thinking about what you’re having for dinner afterwards or whether you need to take the dog to the vet next week, mentally stop yourself and come back to the game. Time is THE most precious resource we have and being absent minded wastes it. Daydreaming and mind wandering are signs that you’re not living presently in your life.
By allowing your mind to wander you’re actively encouraging it not to come back! Daydreaming has even been linked to diseases like Alzheimer’s which target the same area of the brain.
Studies have shown that the areas with protein deposits linked to Alzheimer’s disease were also those most active during down time or when daydreaming. Dr. Randy L. Buckner hypothesized that with this information Alzheimer’s actually begins much earlier in life and that if you’re less focused you’re more likely to develop it.
This daydreaming time is often called “default activity”. It is the time when we’re not actively using our brains for something like writing, talking, reading, or actively thinking. To combat the buildup of negative protein in the brain we need to avoid doing this as much as possible. By keeping your brain active it will stay active!
Meditation, puzzles, talking with friends, even the very act of thinking about how to better stimulate your mind will do just that. It’s very simple but following the theme of this book, requires consistent effort.
Improving your Grey Areas
Improving your grey matter through thought process is a good start to making sure you still have plenty of it left when you are in your later years. When we learn, new links between neurons are created. Meditation has also been shown to increase the number of these and increase grey matter.
Grey matter is responsible for a lot of things including speech, memory, impulse, and emotions. Meditation, omega-3 intake, and exercise have all been shown to actively increase the grey matter in the brain. This means that your brain will function better, you’ll have improved memory and your mind will be under your control better as you age.
Age does negatively affect the volume of your grey matter. However while actively practicing to improve your mind you can stop the decline. Meditation is one of your primary methods for this as it also helps to lessen the traffic load on your neurohighways.
Listening to classical music should also be done as it has been shown to relax the brain. Obvious unhealthy things such as smoking have been linked to lower grey matter
Excessive multi-tasking, especially in the age of multi-media, is something that has actively been shown to decrease grey matter. Our modern lives are very busy and multitasking has become something of an inevitability. It’s also actively destroying and aging your brain.
Using multiple stimuli (think TV , music, print, internet, smartphones etc.) at the same time is information overload for the mind. The heavier the multitasking the lower our cognitive control gets – it dilutes focus.
If you’ve ever had a couch potato moment and zoned out after hours of TV or internet you’ll be able to relate. When we have multiple problems at the back of our minds we also tend to zone out of the present. Worrying about lots of little things while failing to focus on the ‘here and now’ kills the brain slowly.
Over time this actively damages your cognitive functions, and has been shown to reduce the density of grey matter in different areas of the brain. Rather than being scatter brained with your mind on lots of things, focus on one job at a time.
As a bonus you’ll also find yourself more present in the activity. Remember what we said about living in the moment and how it can be trained? These opportunities exist everywhere and you just have to keep an eye out for them.
Omega-3 fatty acids, commonly found in fish and seafood, have also been linked to improved grey matter density. Studies have shown that a deficiency in omega-3’s can lead to cognitive brain defects and decreased function.
Research has shown that eating fish cooked in a healthy manner can even increase grey matter in old age. Even if you’ve already started to feel the effects of aging you can start turning back the clock by incorporating the right foods into your holistic approach!