Brain Stress - Yay or Nay?

May 01, 2010

Starting Sunday, May 2, Discovery Health kicks off "Psych Week" - six days of programming centered on and devoted to mental health. Details

In light of this, I'll be highlighting the 4 critical domains that improve brain health: physical activitymental activityhealthy food, and stress management.  Yes, I'm bloggin' 'bout the brain!

Fun Brain Fact:  Excessive stress has been shown to alter brain cells, brain structure, and brain function.

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Stress.  Such a misunderstood and hard to define concept.  I'll try to define it for you and we'll see how if affects our brains.

Is it bad or good?  Both - and it depends on a lot of factors.

Stressed_man_clamp_lg_whtThere's a woman I know who is terrified of, literally, almost everything: cats, teenagers, driving, the government, Obama, snow, excessive cold, excessive name it.  At the other end of this spectrum are the "throw caution to the wind" type of people who engage in high-risk sports and activities and they thrive on their body's response to them. 

Clearly, "stress" isn't defined the same way for everyone.  

Psychologists differentiate between negative stress (distress) and positive stress (eustress). To be negative, a stressor must have three characteristics:

  1. It must create an aroused physiological response
  2. It must be aversive (meaning, if you could reduce or avoid it, would you?)
  3. You must not feel like you are in control of the stressor

Put these three together and you have a negative stress experience.  If you found out that you had a winning lottery ticket and you're now a millionaire, you'd certainly have a strong physiological response, but it wouldn't be aversive.  This would be a form of eustress, or good stress.  Good stress can make us feel engaged, "switched-on" and connected to the world around us.  

On the other hand, I meet many people who are stressed because they "have to" do a lot of things.  There's pretty liberal use of "have to" out there, isn't there?  Do we really "need" to do all the things we scurry around doing?  We don't "have to" have our children in every activity humanly possible.  We don't "have to" have the latest gadget from Apple.  We don't have to have perfect lawns.

And it's the third negative stress criteria - control - that's the most important in terms of brain health and exercise.

In the late 1960's, Martin Seligman coined the term "learned helplessness" as a result of some experiments he had done.  He gave dogs a consistent electric shock for days.  The dogs hated it, of course, and they couldn't do anything to stop it.  Then, he put them in a metal cage that was half-electrified, half normal.  The dogs were placed on the electrified side and when the switch was thrown, they just laid there and took it.  All they had to do was go to the other side of the cage. But they did nothing.  From the first round of shocks, they learned that any effort they made to stop the unpleasantness was going to have no effect.

And now it's clear how chronic stress can affect one big part of brain function - our sense of control and our willingness to make an effort to improve our situation.

Man_at_the_end_of_the_line_lg_whtAfter dealing with the stress of being overweight, obese, or out of shape for so long, many people lose the will to fight it any longer.  They give up their sense that their efforts at change can have any positive effect on the outcome of their health.  And so they feel lost and hopeless that real change or improvement is ever possible.

And this has a powerfully negative effect on not just their body, but their brain.  When hope is lost, brain chemicals get released that "take the fight" out of you.  The brain "learns" to stop fighting back against the stress of being unhealthy.  We can see the powerful downward spiral this creates all around us.

The trick is in realizing that you do have control over your health - even if you think you don't. Wherever you are on the health spectrum, however challenging the situation you're dealing with, there are things to do that can move you toward health.  Move in the direction of health a little each day.  My mom lost 170 pounds, but it took her 7 years.  She did it at her own pace while maintaining a sense that it was still possible for her to change.  

With fitness, learned helplessness manifests itself in all the things you hear people say they "can't" do.  But you can "learn competence" again by staying vigilant against negative thoughts, having a realistic view of the stressors in your life, changing the ones you can and reducing or minimizing the impact of the ones you can't.  And perhaps most importantly, realize that many of the things we "have to" do are things we want to do.

Jonathan Ross 
Discovery Health Fitness Expert
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Jonathan Ross — fitness expert for Discovery Fit & Health and creator of Aion Fitness — was voted Exercise TV's "Top Trainer" and named in Men's Journal magazine's list of Top 100 Trainers in America. His personal experiences with obesity — "800 pounds of parents" — directly inspired his fitness career. His ability to bring fitness to those who need it the most has made him a two-time Personal Trainer of the Year Award-Winner (ACE and IDEA). His book, Abs Revealed, is filled with cutting-edge exercises in a modern, intelligent approach to abdominal training. His leadership and fresh perspectives on fitness earn him praise as a frequent go-to source of credible fitness information.


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