Stress works in our favor when we need a burst of energy to complete a project or tackle an unexpected challenge. But staying stressed for too long can mess with our minds and leave us feeling anxious, depressed and lonely.
Even if you have nerves of steel, stress can get the best of you. When your brain senses a threatening situation, it triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which prepares your body for fight or flight. In a crisis, this could save your life, but when cortisol levels remain high over days and weeks, it can damage neurons in the brain that are involved in learning, memory and stress management. Excess cortisol may also cause changes to the brain's volume and connectivity that hamper your ability to concentrate, make decisions and socialize.
Some studies suggest that chronic stress can alter the DNA in brain cells in ways that raise one's risk for mental disorders such as depression, Alzheimer's disease and substance abuse. At least 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental disorder at some point in their lives, according to the World Health Organization, and poor mental health can also contribute to health issues such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, researchers say.
But here's the good news: Even if you inherited a tendency to have a mental disorder, you can lower your risks by taking steps to counteract the effects cortisol has on your brain.
Here are some steps you can start taking today:
- Rest up. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed sleep-deprived subjects struggled more with regulating emotions. Go to bed 10 minutes earlier every night until you are getting enough sleep—generally seven to nine hours a night. To ease anxiety, try a relaxing ritual like taking a bath or reading a book.
- Get active. When you exercise, your brain releases endorphins that give you an instant mood boost. Take your workout outside. A University of Michigan study found that group nature walks can ease depression and anxiety.
- Participate. Socializing and engaging in hobbies, even if it must be done virtually because of social distancing measures, helps take your mind off your troubles and can provide a support network that improves your resilience.
- Eat healthy. Instead of reaching for cookies or chips when stressed, nosh on fruits and veggies. Eating five portions of produce a day is linked to higher mental well-being, according to the UK's University of Warwick Medical School.
- Lose the bottle. A glass of wine at the end of a rough day is OK—as long as you keep it to one. Alcohol has a depressant effect on the brain and nervous system that can worsen feelings of sadness.
- Meditate. Take five minutes to get quiet and breathe deeply. Meditation eases the agitation that stress causes by helping you control your nervous system and emotions. Researchers also say meditating regularly can improve concentration and perspective.