As knowledge workers in the 21st century, our success depends on having a healthy, functioning brain. What can leading neuroscientists teach us about stress, effective coping skills and peak performance in the workplace? While you cannot completely eliminate stress, you can make it work for you to improve your brain’s ability to function. Your choices — and how you respond to stress — can make you smarter, stronger and wiser.
The Mind-Body Connection
Most people know that when they exercise, they feel better — but they cannot explain the connection. They assume they’re burning off stress, reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, all of which are true. There’s more to it than that. The real reason you feel better lies in basic physiology: When you get your blood pumping, your brain functions at its best. This is the true goal for exercise: to build and condition the brain. Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects.
Today’s technology-driven tasks put us in front of a computer screen most of the day. Even when you’re out of the office, your mobile phone connects you to work tasks. It’s hard to remember that our bodies and brains were built to move. Our brains need physical activity and stimulation. We need to exert more energy than “keyboard calisthenics” allows. Exercise is crucial to the way we think and feel. It:
- Cues the building blocks of learning in our brains
- Improves mood
- Lowers stress and anxiety
- Improves our ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate
- Helps stave off the deleterious effects of hormonal changes
Exercise increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrineand dopamine — key neurotransmitters that traffic in thoughts and emotions. People with low levels often suffer from clinical depression and stress, which can erode the connections among the brain’s billions of nerve cells. Chronic depression actually shrinks certain areas of the brain. Conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters and growth factors that can reverse this process. This is why physical activity is so important in our stress-filled workdays.
Stress — It’s Everywhere
The term “stress” is overused and misunderstood, as it’s bandied about to describe both cause and effect:
- Cause: “There’s a lot of stress at work these days.”
- Effect: “I’m so stressed that I can’t think straight.”
Even scientists cannot always distinguish between the psychological state of stress and the physiological response to it. What is clear is that if we’re in a chronic state of high-level stress, emotional strain leads to physical consequences. The body responds with anxiety and depression, as well as high blood pressure, heart problems and cancer. Chronic stress eats away at the brain’s connective tissue.
In a recession, with increased job stress, there’s no getting away from a nerve-wracking environment. Either you’re unemployed and struggling to cope, or you’re employed and doing the job of more than one person. How can we harness the power of stress to our advantage? The body’s stress response is actually a built-in gift of evolution. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to survive. The trick lies in finding out how you can turn stress into strength.
More in Part 2 tomorrow…