Stress and Your Brain

By Susan E. Sklar, M.D.
This week, I want to talk to you about stress, because stress is one of the biggest factors in why we have brain decline. Stress is not some intangible kind of airy concept; it is a definite set of physiologic responses that end up killing your neurons (brain cells). High levels of the cortisol hormone that get released when we’re stressed actually shrink your brain, particularly the area called the hippocampus where you lay down new memories. In addition to being damaging to your brain, these stress hormones cause other problems. They increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer, among other things.
woman riding bike on secluded beach
What can you do about stress? A lot of times, you can’t do anything about stress. You’ve got bosses making your life difficult; you’re in the sandwich generation with elderly parents and teenage children who both need attention; somebody in the family’s quite ill; somebody may have passed away. These are life events that put tremendous stress on our bodies. In addition, our lifestyle in modern times means that we are chronically stressed. Stress is not just a momentary thing that happens out in the woods when an animal chases us; it’s a day in, day out, hour by hour, minute by minute state of physiology.

You can’t dump your lives, you can’t dump the stress in your lives, but there are things that you can do to enhance your physiology and to dampen the damaging effects of stress in your bodies, to bring down your cortisol levels.

What are these things? Well, just taking a walk out in nature, connecting with nature for many people is healing and relaxing. Listening to music, getting a massage. Yoga and tai chi are known for their relaxation responses. One of my favorites, because a lot of times people tell me, “I can’t meditate, I get nervous if I try to meditate, I can’t clear my mind. It makes me more anxious to try to meditate,” is to do a guided meditation. There are a number of phone apps for free that you can listen to for anywhere from 10 minutes to 25 minutes or half hour that will guide you through a relaxation exercise. Some of the ones I’m the most familiar with are “Calm,” “Stop, Breathe, Think,” and “Headspace.”

One of my favorites is called Neural Agility which is part of the RevitaMind series. It can be ordered at It is like meditation on steroids. I highly recommend it. Please, pass this information on to a friend, it’s very important for your future health and for the future health of those you know and love. Then take a deep breath, relax, reduce your risk, and I’ll see you next time.

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