You know that stress can make you feel tense or impulsive, but did you know that it also alters the actual structure of your brain? These changes can impact your personality, memory, and decision-making skills.
According to recent Huffington Post article by physiologist Jenny C. Evans, stress shrinks areas of your brain that help you cope while increasing the size of an area that makes you feel more anxious.
When you’re stressed, your body releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol shrinks the hippocampus, the part of your brain that Evans says, “is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over.”
Cortisol also shrinks your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that helps with decision-making, memory and impulse control.
While your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex shrink in response to cortisol, that same hormone causes your amygdala to increase in size. Evans says that, “The changes cortisol creates [in your amygdala] increase negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and aggression.”
Bad news, but Evans also shares some good news about cortisol and your brain. You can make your brain more “stress-resistant” with one simple habit: exercise.
Exercise helps offset the damage that cortisol does to your brain. It helps you generate new neurons where you need them most. And the best part? You don’t have to spend hours at the gym or hitting the pavement for a long run to get these benefits. Evans says that “A single bout of sprinting for 30 seconds can generate a six-fold increase in HGH, with levels peaking two hours later.” HGH — human growth hormone — is a hormone that stimulates brain growth, which helps counteract the effects of cortisol.
Evans says that five minute bursts of exercise are actually ideal for protecting your brain from stress. That means a quick walk can do the trick. If you find yourself stressed at work, maybe propose that an upcoming meeting be a walking meeting rather than one where you’re confined to an office or conference room. Kids stressing you out? Try a short family walk around the block or even a two-song dance party in the living room.