Don’t Just Survive – Thrive: Impact Of Stress On The Brain

Neuroscientist and life coach Tara Swart was recently in South Africa to host a business results group on brain health and leadership. She spoke exclusively to Longevity about the impact of stress on the brain and how to combat it.

Survival mode is a state that your brain enters into when you’re under continual stress. It is triggered by sustained high cortisol levels. But how serious must the stress be to push us into survival mode? The shocking truth is that we may be taking our stress levels too lightly; many of us may be operating in survival mode every day. According to neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, these are the signs that your cortisol levels are high: sleep issues, heartburn, reflux, acid indigestion, headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, and craving caffeine and chocolate. If you tick each one of those boxes, don’t panic. Keep reading to understand how your cortisol levels work, what survival mode is, how it is negatively affecting you, and how – starting today – you can remedy it.

Your cortisol levels

“We think about stress, we think about the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPC). This part of the brain has two major functions: pain management and cortisol management,” Swart explains. Cortisol is the hormone that wakes you up. Once you’re awake, your cortisol levels should be low throughout the day, unless there is a crisis. Once the crisis has passed, they should return to normal. If you are under chronic stress, however, your cortisol levels will continue to creep up and stay high. This is when survival mode kicks in.

What is survival mode?

According to Swart, when the RVLPC registers sustained high cortisol levels, it believes you are facing imminent death. “It then goes into survival mode, listing the possible reasons why you could be about to die, in order of importance,” she states. Inevitably, it places starvation near the top of the list. It then starts laying down a fatty layer around your middle to prevent this from taking place. This makes you crave fatty, sugary, caffeinated foods. In survival mode, we battle to collaborate, be productive or have creative thoughts, Swart adds. “This results in your showing up to work, but battling to be productive. It also results in pain – headaches, back pain and muscle fatigue – among other symptoms. Eventually you will start to miss work, because the high cortisol levels will erode your immune system, resulting in your being sicker more often and for longer periods.” High cortisol levels can also result in heart attacks in otherwise healthy people.

Why are my cortisol levels so high?

Now that we understand how cortisol works, let’s look at some of the lifestyle factors that are raising it. Swart elaborates: “One of the brain’s major functions is loss aversion. Psychologically, losses have twice the effect of gain on the brain. There are eight basic human emotions: fear, anger, disgust, shame, sadness, surprise, joy/excitement, and love/trust. The first five are all associated with loss aversion and, as a result, cortisol. The last two are associated with attachment and, therefore, oxytocin. When your environmental experience and your thinking pattern combine to largely trigger the first five, you will experience high cortisol levels.”

Another important factor, which doesn’t get enough attention, is the brain/body connection. Swart says an emphasis on psychology has informed our thinking for so long that we have ended up with a version of the brain that is cut off at the neck. This is problematic, as it focuses on the brain and ignores the body. “In fact, our nervous system comes from the brain straight down into the body – there is no cut-off. If you are cold, tired, hungry or jetlagged, it will affect your thinking and your cortisol levels. Conversely, if you are happy, that has a positive impact on the neuroendocrine system.”

Let’s apply this information practically.

Your eight-step plan for exiting survival mode

The good news is that you can combat loss aversion and work with your lifestyle habits to improve your mental resilience and have a happier, healthier brain. This is Swart’s eight-step plan for exiting survival mode.

  1. Get quality sleepsleep | Longevity Live

Did you know that poor sleep costs you five to eight IQ points the next day? “98%-99% of brains need to sleep for seven to nine hours per night, as this allows the glymphatic system to be cleansed of neurotoxins,” Swart explains. “Sleep is a forcible flushing of neurotoxins. This is important, as a build-up can cause neurological disorders.” She adds that as caffeine stays in your brain for eight to 10 hours, it is important to stop consuming it after lunch. The light from screens also triggers cortisol; we should switch them off an hour before we go to sleep.

2. Optimize your diet

“If you are under stress, eat every two hours for optimal brain function. Your brain can’t store glucose, so it is important to keep replenishing your stores.” If you have the space to develop your mental resilience, it can be useful to practice intermittent fasting. This teaches your brain that you can manage small amounts of physical stress, she says. “You should also avoid eating too close to bedtime, as this disrupts sleep.”

Swart suggests a diet high in salmon, avocado, eggs, nuts and healthy oils. Preferably, it should contain reduced amounts of smoked foods, red meats, alcohol, caffeine and processed foods. It is also crucial to stay hydrated. “We need to drink half a litre of water for every 15kg of body weight throughout the day. Dehydration affects our memory and concentration. Often, when you feel you need coffee, you actually need water.” If you drink a lot of coffee or alcohol, or do a lot of sport, you need to drink extra water. Taking a magnesium supplement also works to reduce stress levels, in conjunction with other lifestyle changes.

3. Exercise regularly

You can literally sweat out cortisol if you do aerobic exercise. “I recommend 10 000 steps a day and 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. It is important to engage in aerobic exercise, as this assists in oxygenating the brain, which is vital for healthy functionality. It is also important to participate in activities that require co-ordination (such as ping-pong), and that include a social element,” Swart says.

4. Practice mindfulness

“Mindfulness practice is essential to reducing cortisol levels. When you are stressed, your brain shifts blood flow to the RVLPC. When you meditate or practise mindfulness, you move the blood flow to the LVLPC (left side). This reduces your cortisol levels.”

5. Treat your symptoms

“If you have any physical symptoms as the result of an illness, you need to treat these. Otherwise, they can drain your brain power.”

6. Release negative emotions

“Writing your negative emotions into a journal is a great way to get them out of your body and brain,” she adds. “It’s also important to have the language to articulate your feelings to someone else. Without this, you repress emotions and raise your cortisol levels. If you have someone you trust, it is important to share your negative thoughts with them.”

7. Boost your oxytocinacne | Longevity LIVE

“Having a massage or warm bath; receiving eye contact and focused attention from a family member, friend or colleague and laughing with another person can increase your oxytocin.”

8. Simply your choices

“When you are stressed, it is important to simplify your choices. Think of your cognitive ability as a full bottle of water. Every time you make a decision, you take a sip from the bottle. If you are stressed, there may as well be a leak in your bottle.” Swart suggests setting up a rhythm.

“Eat roughly the same meals at the same times each day. Predetermine what you are going to wear for the week. Exercise at the same time every day, or in a regular pattern. President Barack Obama practiced this simplification during his time in office and benefited greatly.”

This eight-step guide can be practically implemented in your day-to-day life. After just two weeks of regularly adopting these habits, you will start to see a big improvement. Learn to redefine success. Exhausting your resources will not lead to sustained productivity. The take-away message is that if you look after your brain, it will look after you.

For more articles on Dr Tara Swart’s brain health for leadership, follow the link.

And for more reading on brain health, check out the following article.

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