Who wouldn’t love a stress proof brain? The title of this book, The Stress-Proof Brain, is enough to intrigue anyone going through a stressful time.
Melanie Greenberg provides background on how our brains respond to stress and how that response is what determines how we feel. Depending on the situation, our amygdala releases hormones and neurotransmitters that prepare people to either fight or flee.
In the short-term, this can be a good thing; it can energize people and help overcome obstacles. But when this response is continual rather than in response to a genuine threat, it becomes a problem. The good news is that people have the ability to change their response to stressful situations.
Greenberg writes that unmanaged stress has a significant negative impact on health. As people have continual surges of epinephrine, they are also more inclined to have cardiovascular disease, even heart attack. If cortisol is around too long, it can lead to infection, which explains why people who are continually stressed are sick frequently.
While many things in life can’t be controlled, what we can control is our interpretation of what is happening. Part of coping well through changes is having a positive core identity, which means seeing oneself as valuable regardless of negative life circumstances, such as losing a job or going through a divorce.
After a major loss, even minor things can feel overwhelming because there are not enough cognitive resources available to cope. But there is hope for people who feel overwhelmed by the stress.
Greenberg writes about an approach to calming the amygdala, which involves mindfulness and learning how to stay grounded in the present in order to switch out of an overactive state.
By practicing mindfulness, people can slow down their emotions enough so the prefrontal cortex – the CEO of our brains – has time to respond. Rather than being reactive, the prefrontal cortex directs a healthy response to a stressful issue.
One healthy technique involves learning how to slow down breathing, which sends a signal to the amygdala that the perceived threat is over, and that the amygdala can calm down. The practice of simply being present can also help, because it keeps people from worrying about the past or the future, instead focusing on what is happening right now.
Mindfulness doesn’t have to be a complicated process, and it’s something that anyone can do, at anytime. For example, you can practice mindfulness by simply noticing the colors and shapes of items in a room.
So if the response to stress is so bad for the brain and body, wouldn’t it be better to just ignore it? Greenberg says “no.”
Ignoring uncomfortable emotions only exacerbates the problem. Stressful emotions provide information to help people reach goals and reminds them to re-focus. As people begin to learn basic techniques such as feeling grounded in the current situation, they become better able to deal with their emotions without becoming so overwhelmed by them.
Emotions are something everyone experiences and processing them is a part of life. As difficult as it may be, the consequences of suppressing emotions are much worse than doing the processing.
To learn how to not be completely driven by our emotions, we can learn to observe them with a mindset of curiosity and openness, rather than an attitude of judgment. Exercises like writing can help people learn to observe, because the act of writing brings clarity about what’s happening, and can help people see where behavior change is needed.
It may feel overwhelming to change how one thinks in all aspects of life, but it may help to start with just one area. When a person manages stress in one area, they will gain stress-management skills to apply in other areas of life as well.
Working towards a Stress-Proof Brain starts with self-compassion.
For many people, there are things they would never criticize in another person that they criticize in themselves. But self-criticism only leads to more stress.
When there are multiple stressors, and not enough time for recovery, the response to stress will continue to be negative. So it’s important to take time to rest when needed and especially after dealing with a major stressor.
When people are stressed, they tend to narrow their focus and it is this tunnel vision that makes people more inclined to overreact, so it’s important for people to watch for their personal triggers. For example, if watching the evening news is a trigger that results in worry or rumination, people need to be intentional about finding another evening activity rather than watching the news.
Short term acute stressors become chronic problems when the brain and body do not get the needed rest. These stress layers pile on top of each other, so that short-term stressors can become chronic conditions. But over time, people can learn new responses and yes, even people who are extremely negative can learn to create positive states of mind.
Chronic stress can result in inflammation, which contributes to depression, heart disease, and even cancer. Using techniques such as those mentioned above, eating healthier, getting exercise and learning other ways to relax can help people keep stress under control.
The Stress-Proof Brain is suitable for all audiences. Greenberg does a good job of explaining the brain chemistry without it becoming overwhelming for someone who do not have a neuroscience background. She makes a great case for taking stress seriously without using unnecessary scare tactics.
Throughout the book, she provides exercises for people to practice and offers additional resources at the end for people who want to explore further. Since mindfulness is a big part of her treatment for whole person healing, I especially recommend this this book to people who already value the practice of mindfulness.
The Stress-Proof Brain: Master Your Emotional Response to Stress Using Mindfulness & Neuroplasticity
New Harbinger Publications, February 2017
Paperback, 232 pages