Stress is an inevitable part of life.
We feel ‘stressed’ when real or imagined pressures exceed our perceived ability to cope. If things all feel ‘too much’, we experience the sensations of ‘stress’.
But feeling stressed is not always a bad thing. When stress is short-term and manageable, it motivates and facilitates learning and change. Stress only becomes toxic when it’s excessive or long-lasting.
To enable the nuanced and very human responses to the diverse challenges that might come your way, the brain produces a highly coordinated and complex stress response.
What Makes a Brain Healthy and Happy?
The health and happiness of our brain are influenced by multiple interacting factors including our biology, the world around us, other people, and our thoughts, feelings and mindset.
One useful way to understand how our brain is influenced by so many complex factors is using my Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down Framework.
It’s also a useful visual representation to discover different ways — biological, social, environmental or psychological — to buffer stress.
The Bottom-Up, Outside-In, Top-Down model provides us with a simple framework to think about the multiple ‘streams of data’ the brain is processing.
- Bottom-Up elements are the biological or physiological determinants of brain health and include genes, hormones, the immune system, nutrition, exercise, and other lifestyle choices.
- Outside-In elements include social and environmental factors, stress, life events, education, current circumstances, and family background.
- Top-Down elements include thoughts, emotions, mindset, and belief systems.
Each element can impact others in complex, multi-directional and dynamic ways.
Six Practical Stress-Busters Based on Brain Science.
Using the Bottom-Up Outside-In Top-Down model, here are six practical strategies that allow you to find peace of mind amidst your challenges.
Bottom-Up Approach: Change your biology
1. Get a good night’s sleep and indulge in a nap
Sleep is the cornerstone of good brain health. While we sleep, the brain consolidates memories and goes through an amazing ‘cleaning up’ process that appears to protect us from developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. Sleep also helps us manage stress by assisting with emotional regulation and the management of cortisol levels.
Sleep Action Tip
Getting around 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night is believed to be what is required for good health. One of my favourite stress reduction (and productivity) strategies is to also take an afternoon nap. Napping is a great way to “reset” from the stressors of the day, while also smoothing out emotions and increasing clarity.
2. Get moving
Tight shoulders, shallow breathing, tension headaches and feelings of overwhelm? Exercise can help reverse the effects of stress by releasing muscle tension, increasing oxygen levels, and boosting feel-good hormones (endorphins), while also using up excess adrenaline and cortisol released as part of our stress response.
I find exercise one of the easiest ways to reduce my stress levels, definitely easier than thought-based or mindfulness strategies. For many people, exercise becomes an effective meditation in motion. Exercising outside and with others has also been linked to increased mood.
Move Action Tip:
When you are feeling stressed, get moving in a way that you enjoy — go for a walk, hit the gym, swim in the ocean, take a dance class, even housework can get your heart rate up!
Outside-In Approach: Change your environment to reduce stress
3. Time in nature
Sunshine, light and fresh air are nature’s way of helping us chill out and gain perspective. Time in nature helps to improve mood, reduce blood pressure and can increase our ability to concentrate. Exposure to daylight can also help us sleep better, as light regulates our natural wake and sleep cycle (circadian rhythm).
While we have to be sun-wise (especially here in Australia!), getting some sunshine can make us feel better and improve our mood, thanks to the mood-boosting effects of vitamin D and serotonin, both of which increase with sun exposure.
Nature Action Tip:
Head outside to get some fresh and clear your head if you feel stress rising. Incorporate time in nature during your week to keep your stress in check —try a walk by the beach in the morning, a bushwalk on the weekend, watching a sunset or sunrise, or spending time in the garden.
4. Connecting with others
Our brains are wired for connection. We are born as social animals and have a fundamental need for human warmth and connection, especially when we are stressed.
When we connect with friends and loved ones, the bonding hormone oxytocin is released in our brain. Oxytocin not only makes us feel good, but it also lowers our stress and counteracts the effects of cortisol.
Connection Action Tip:
While it can be hard to find the time (or mental energy) to socialise when we are feeling stressed, making time to have a coffee or dinner and catch up with friends or family is an effective (and fun) way to take the pressure off and keep stress under control.
Top-Down Approach: Change how you think to reduce stress
When we fixate on a problem in the future or regret from the past, worry and rumination can take hold and cause stress and anxiety. Mindfulness practices train our brain to stay in the here and now.
Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), have been seen to be effective in buffering against stress. By bringing our attention back to the present moment, tuning in to our senses and using our breath to slow our heart rate, we can deactivate our stress response.
Mindful Action Tip:
Slow, deep-breathing exercises evoke a relaxation response. One useful way to practice deep breathing is to use the ‘box breathing’ technique: Breathe in for four seconds. Hold your breath for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. Then pause for four seconds before taking your next breath.
6. Re-think your stress response
How we think about stress has a considerable effect on our bodies. In her TED talk, Make Stress Your Friend, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how the belief that stress is harmful is what makes stress unhealthy, not the stress itself.
The negative perception of stress causes the body to change in ways that have been linked to disease and a reduction in life expectancy. However, seeing the stress response as helpful and preparing us for the challenge ahead, can stop our body from responding with further stress and making us unwell.
Re-thinking Action Tip:
Next time you feel stressed, notice the symptoms of stress (the racing heart, the sweaty palms), and see if you can re-frame these sensations. Can you re-think the sensation of stress as the sensation of energy, excitement or anticipation?
Stress is something we all face and can’t be avoided, nor should we try. By working with the three core influencers of brain health, we can learn to ‘switch off’ our stress response and ‘switch on’ our relaxation response, promoting mental health and physical wellbeing.
Jessica Lee is a neuro-wellbeing writer and educator and owner of The Spark Effect. She is passionate about sharing the fascinating world of the brain and how we can use neuroscience-based strategies to find solutions, build resilience, lower stress and increase health, happiness and creativity.
About Dr Sarah
I’m an Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women's Brain Book. The neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness.
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