Everyone knows that stress can contribute to weight gain, diabetes and many other ailments, but few people realize just how harmful stress can be for your brain.

Latest development: Although chronic stress has long been known to trigger the release of excessive amounts of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, new studies show that both hormones actually kill brain cells and interfere with the production of new ones.

Fortunately, new research on the brain suggests that there may be ways to minimize, slow down and perhaps even reverse this damage. For advice on the most effective brain-protection strategies, we consulted Richard O'Connor, PhD, a renowned psychotherapist who has extensively studied the harmful effects of stress.

  • Why has stress become such a serious health threat in recent years? It's a long-term historical trend that involves culture and economics. Before the Industrial Revolution (in the late 18th century), people tended to awaken in the morning when it became light and to go to bed when it turned dark. They also had a great deal of leisure time. That's been changing—and just in the past 25 years, it has changed dramatically.' We're working 25% longer and harder to attain the same standard of living we did a quarter of a century ago. In fact, Americans now work as many hours as anyone in the world, including the Japanese, who are known for working incredibly long hours.
  • Doesn't a certain amount of stress make people more productive? Yes, people are more productive when their work provides enough of a challenge to help them grow. But when the work is too difficult or the hours are too long, or our home life provides no relief, then stress becomes chronic. Research has consistently shown that chronic stress disrupts the functions of the immune, endocrine and digestive systems. This can result in a variety of health problems, such as asthma, heart disease and immune system deficiencies.

During the last 15 years, advances in technology have given scientists an opportunity to examine the human brain in great detail. For example, imaging studies have allowed researchers to visualize the significant loss of gray matter (the brain's information processing center) that can result from years of stress-related conditions, such as depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, no one knows for sure whether these effects are permanent.

  • Are most people aware of the degree to which they are suffering from stress? By no means. 'We have an interest in denying the effects of stress. Our society admires people who show grace under pressure, and we all want to believe we can handle whatever life dishes out.
  • Given the nature of our lives today, is it really possible to avoid stress? Yes, absolutely. The first step is to believe that you have some degree of control over your own life. Many people feel out of control—as if events are driving them rather than the other way around. Many people think that they must work 60 hours a week, but that's simply not so. If your job requires long, stressful hours, consider changing professions or finding a job in your profession that has shorter hours.

The stakes are high. People who can't reduce chronic stress live shorter lives, suffer more illness and disability, have less satisfying relationships and often are plagued by anxiety and/or depression.

  • What if it’s not practical to make such a drastic change? Changing our thought patterns helps. This can allow us to prevent and even reverse some of the adverse changes, such as loss of gray matter, that occur in our brain's neural circuitry as a result of chronic stress. Meditation is an effective stress-reducing strategy. Research has shown that people who spend just 20 minutes a day focusing on their breath or on calming thoughts achieve such benefits as lower blood pressure, less anxiety and reduced chronic pain.
  • What can be done in addition to meditation? As we all know, exercise also is an excellent stress fighter. However, few people appreciate the importance of intimate communication. When we feel like we have a partner or are part of a group, we feel safer and more secure. As a result, the stress hormone cascade is reduced. Feeling that we have a purpose in life—having a child or pet to care for, a cause that's meaningful to us, people who need us—these are good stress fighters.

In one landmark study, residents of a nursing home were split into two groups. Half of the residents were told that they were responsible for taking care of a plant. The other half were told not to worry about the plant. After one year, the people who were caring for a plant were healthier and had fewer illnesses. They also lived longer.

  • How can we improve the way we communicate with others? Communication always occurs on two levels. It's not only about the content of what's being said, but also the nature of the relationship between the people. Content communication is usually conveyed through words...relationship communication comes through tone, face and body language. It's perfectly possible to say the words "I love you" but contradict the words through a dismissive tone or a frown. Content communication should be consistent with relationship communication.
  • What if these strategies aren't effective? For some people, self-help practices are not enough. Some of the newer antidepressants, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), appear to reverse stress-related brain damage and help people regain the ability to grow new brain cells.

We have evidence that psychotherapy can do the same thing. Cognitive behavior therapy, which trains patients to see how their psychological problems are the result of faulty thought patterns, has been around for more than 40 years—and it works to fight the effects of stress.

To find a cognitive behavior therapist in your area, consult the Academy of Cognitive Therapy, www.academyofct.org, 267-350-7683.

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