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Stress Literally Shrinks Your Brain: Five Strategies for Reversing This Effect

By Dr. Travis Bradberry

We all know that living under stressful conditions has serious emotional, even physical, consequences. So why do we have so much trouble taking action to reduce our stress levels and improve our lives? Researchers at Yale University have the answer. They found that stress actually reduces the volume of grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with self-control.

Sometimes we create our own stress...

The Yale research shows that stress actually makes it more challenging to deal with future stress. But don’t be disheartened. It’s not impossible to reduce your stress levels; you just need to make it a higher priority if you want to reverse this effect. The sooner you start managing your stress, the easier it will be to keep unexpected stress from causing damage in the future.

The Yale researchers also found that stress affects physiological functions in the brain, contributing to chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes. Luckily, the plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change as you practice new behaviors. So implementing healthy stress-relieving techniques can train your brain to handle stress more effectively and decrease the likelihood of ill effects.

Here are five strategies to help you manage and reduce your stress levels:

1. Take A Mini Break.

For many people, just thinking about adding stress-relieving activities to their schedule stresses them out. If this sounds like you, don’t worry. You don’t have to make huge additions or changes to your daily schedule to begin reducing your stress levels. Instead, try introducing a few mini stress relievers throughout your day. This can be as simple as letting yourself indulge in a coffee break, taking five minutes to stretch, listening to your favorite song (even though it distracts you from your work), or taking a short walk outside during your lunch hour. Spending even a short time on a relaxing activity will help establish stress relief as part of your routine.

2. Put Things In Perspective

Our worries often come from our own skewed perception of events. So before you spend too much time dwelling on what your boss said during the last staff meeting, take a minute to put the situation in perspective. If you aren’t sure when you need to do this, try looking for clues that your anxiety may not be proportional to the stressor. If you are thinking in broad sweeping statements like “Everything is going wrong” or “Nothing will work out” then you need to reframe the situation. A great way to correct this unproductive thought pattern is to list the specific things that actually are going wrong or not working out. Most likely you will come up with just one or two things—not everything. The key to keeping your cool is to remember that your feelings of everything, nothing, or always are rarely accurate, and the scope of the stressor is much more limited than it might appear.

3. Practice Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a simple, research-supported form of meditation that is an effective way to gain control of unruly thoughts and behaviors. People who practice mindfulness regularly are more focused, even when they are not meditating. It is an excellent technique to help reduce stress because it allows you to reduce the feeling of being out of control. Essentially, mindfulness helps you stop jumping from one thought to the next, which keeps you from ruminating on negative thoughts. Overall, it’s a great way to make it through your busy day in a calm and productive manner. To learn more about practicing mindfulness, read our article “How to Stay Focused, Calm, and Productive.

4. Use Your Support System.

It’s tempting, yet entirely ineffective, to attempt tackling everything by yourself. To be calm and productive you need to recognize your weaknesses and ask for help when you need it. This means tapping into your support system when a situation is challenging enough for you to feel overwhelmed. Everyone has someone at work and/or outside work who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Identify these individuals in your life and make an effort to seek their insights and assistance when you need it. Something as simple as talking about your worries will provide an outlet for your anxiety and stress and supply you with a new perspective on the situation. Most of the time, other people can see a solution that you can’t because they are not as emotionally invested in the situation. Asking for help will mitigate your anxiety and strengthen your relationships with those you rely upon.

5. Take A Break From Technology.

Technology enables constant communication and the expectation that you should be available 24/7. It is extremely difficult to enjoy a stress-free moment outside of work when an email that will change your train of thought and get you thinking (read: stressing) about work can drop onto your phone at any moment. If detaching yourself from work-related communication on weekday evenings is too big a challenge, then how about the weekend? Choose blocks of time where you will cut the cord and go offline. You’ll be amazed by how refreshing these breaks are and how they reduce stress by putting a mental recharge into your weekly schedule. If you are worried about the negative repercussions of taking this step, try first doing it at times you are unlikely to be contacted—maybe Sunday morning. As you grow more comfortable with this, and as your coworkers begin to accept the time you spend offline, gradually expand the amount of time you spend away from technology.

As simple as these strategies may seem, they are difficult to implement when your mind is clouded with stress. Force yourself to attempt them the next time your head is spinning, and you’ll reap the benefits that come with disciplined stress management.



Travis Bradberry, Ph.D.

Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world's leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.