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Stress is contagious

StressIt’s bad enough having to cope with the hazards of secondhand smoke; but now it’s found that secondhand stress can be hazardous to our productivity and health as well.
The suggestion that stress is contagious is based on research that suggests a class of brain cells called mirror neurons that appear to reflect the actions & feelings of others.

So if you cringe at the sight of someone else getting hurt, empathize with your friend who is grieving and feel uncomfortable when a coworker is upset and anxious, blame it on these specialized brain cells. No wonder our mothers warned us to stay away from obnoxious people, surround ourselves with positive friends, and be polite to people. (After all, we don’t want to spread our bad feelings to others.)

And when mother said, “This hurts me as much as it hurts you,” she wasn’t fibbing. Studies show that the pain we feel when others get hurt activates the same regions of the brain that are activated when we actually get hurt ourselves.

Not only does this make sense of the fact that we sometimes get “bad vibes” from people we meet, it also emphasizes the importance of being able to manage stress effectively – even secondhand stress. Stress can affect our productivity as well as our mood and state of health

We can have a positive influence on others – whether family, friends or business associates – by being kind, caring, compassionate and cheerful. Who knows? We could be part of a domino effect that could impact the well-being of the world.

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Negative Effects of Stress – and how to reduce them

Negative effects of stress

Although stress can help us in times where extra strength or speed is needed we now live in a society where we are confronted with too much stress. Because of this we also now see the negative effects of stress on both our emotional and physical lives.

Stress can induce the release of cortisol, and excess cortisol impairs function in the prefrontal cortex – an emotional learning center that helps regulate the “executive skills,” including working memory. The overproduction of cortisol was found in seniors who were experiencing memory loss. And it is believed by many neurologists that memory loss experienced by seniors is largely a factor of stress, not age. Prolonged exposure to cortisol has also been shown to shrink the hippocampus by up to 14 percent.

An article in the September, 2014 issue of the Reader’s Digest (A new way of thinking by Philip Preille) reported that a few years ago a major U.S. study confirmed previous findings that high levels of cortisol, when produced for too long, impair mental retention. The alleviating factor is face-to-face contact with others. All evidence reports to social activities – anything from bridge clubs to evening classes, particularly volunteerism – to relieving stress and improving memory. Seniors who double up on their volunteering activities live up to 44% longer than non-volunteers.

Chronic stress kills brain cells and effects memory, so a hassle-free life is a healthier life. In stressful situations, your weakest executive skills fail first and become more pronounced. Fatigue and information overload tend to weaken them further. Avoiding, releasing or being able to manage stress is important. You should re-examine your workload. Simplify if possible. Delegate and outsource. Pace yourself. Too much exertion without breaks taxes the executive skills, including working memory. In fact studies have shown that people who exert themselves mentally, such as resisting the temptation to eat chocolate or whatever, gave up on problems sooner when presented with them immediately afterwards. (Scientific American Mind, May/June, 2011)

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Although drinking too much coffee has been associated with stress, in moderation it seems to give memory a boost. A brief article in the spring, 2014 issue of Health magazine describes a link between caffeine and memory. Michael Yassa of John Hopkins University asked 60 people to view a series of images of different objects. Then, five minutes later, after receiving either a placebo or 200 milligrams of caffeine, were tested the next day on their ability to recognize images from the day before. More people from the caffeine group recognized that an image was similar to rather than identical with one they had viewed earlier. Separate research published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition also showed that one or two cups of tea a day can boost brain power and athletic performance. This held true for children as well.

Finally, don’t take yourself too seriously. Laughter reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, aids immunity, changes mood for the better, helps you think – and improves memory. Sandra Kornblatt, in her book A better brain at any age, also gave an account of how humor during instruction led to increased test scores.

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Building stress resistance

building stress resistenceChuck Martin, Richard Guare and Peggy Dawson, in their book Work Your Strengths, include stress tolerance as an executive skill. I would think that being strong in many of the other executive skills would help you to tolerate stressful situations, including emotional stress such as that caused by illness. But being able to manage stress is critical since it can weaken the immune system, raise cholesterol levels, accelerate hardening of the arteries, disrupt the digestive system, and lead to overeating and obesity. And according to Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, it can also increase the risk of developing dementia. So we will include stress tolerance as one of the executive skills.

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Stress tolerance is the ability to thrive in stressful situations. With strong stress tolerance, you are able to take things in stride, and work well under stress. If you don’t handle stress well, panic during crisis, and feel uncomfortable when things don’t go smoothly, you are weak in this skill.

Working memory, as discussed previously, allows you to hang on to memories long enough for them to be consolidated as long-term memories in the hippocampus area of the brain. And if we don’t protect the hippocampus from excessive stress, we may lose the ability to file these new memories, putting us at risk for Alzheimer’s.

Things we should not do to relieve stress is turn to drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. Tiffany Chow, in her book, The memory clinic, claims that smoking is a risk factor for heart disease, heart attacks, and high blood pressure and she mentioned that one study reported that it doubles the risk for dementia.

It’s usually impossible to relax, do deep breathing, meditate or go jogging when you’re in a stressful situation. But you’re not supposed to relax. The “flight or fight” response that you experience under stress is not something that you can avoid. It’s a product of your automatic nervous system, which regulates the release of adrenaline, blood pressure, heart rate, hand temperature and other physiological changes. It’s an automatic response to perceived danger. If it were someone threatening you with a knife, the response could save your life. Your increased strength and heightened awareness could get you out of danger. And the adrenaline would be used up as you take action.

But with an unrealistic deadline or an overload of projects, you’re not engaged in physical activity. The excess adrenaline causes you to feel terrible. You experience palpitations, dry throat, trembling. You’re nervous and upset. You weren’t meant to feel the adrenaline; you were supposed to be too busy to feel anything.

Relaxing is not what you should be trying to do. Relaxation is something you acquire when you’re not under stress. It’s preventative medicine, so to speak. It makes stress easier to handle. What you need at the moment is stress management. You need to take control of the situation, change your attitude, be assertive and accept life’s challenge.

Combine healthy attitudes with action and you have stress management. When you are faced with a stressful situation, look at it as a challenge. Take a positive approach and look at the bright side. You can’t do the impossible. The important thing is to be active, take control and be assertive. Activity dissipates the adrenaline, and along with it, the worry and ravages of stress. A Yale University study revealed that those who changed their outlook on stress after watching a video urging them to rise up to whatever challenge faced them showed improved psychological symptoms and better work performance.

To build stress tolerance, make sure you schedule adequate leisure time, build quality relationships with others, laugh often, keep healthy and physically fit, participate in relaxation exercises and massages, get plenty of sleep, and don’t take yourself too seriously. Meditation or mindfulness can also help you change the way you perceive potentially stressful situations. A Newsweek special issue, Your Body (October, 2014) suggested that taking 15 minutes a day for silent meditation can help lower stress levels and prevent it from increasing in the first place. Studies showed that even taking a few deep breaths can lower cortisol levels.

You might also maintain a positive attitude, turn off your cell phone, and drink black tea to help develop a resistance to stress. According to the Newsweek article referenced above, studies show that taking three or four hours each day away from the Internet and digital communication is not only a healthy distraction, but also a partial antidote to stress. It also referred to a study by University College London that found that those who drank four cups of black tea a day for four weeks had a lower cortisol level in their blood when facing a stressful situation.

And believe it or not, orderliness seems to help as well. UCLA researchers discovered that the sight of clutter can induce the production of stress hormones. So get organized.