Nashville, Tennessee (PressExposure) April 02, 2012 -- This April marks the 20th anniversary of Stress Awareness Month. With money, job and health concerns topping the list of things Americans are stressed over, it's a good time to discover what all that stress is doing to your brain and body, and learn a few simple things that help to lower stress, making you a happier, healthier human being.
Stress is a silent and deadly epidemic, yet many people have come to accept that it's just a normal part of their everyday lives. The American Institute of Stress estimates that 75 - 90 percent of all visits to primary care physicians are for stress related problems. The American Psychological Association reports 77% of people regularly feel the physical symptoms caused by stress, such as fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, irritability and moodiness. Stress has also been directly linked to cancer, diabetes, depression, anxiety disorders, seizures, asthma, heart disease and stroke. Most of us don't think the worst symptoms and illnesses will happen to us, but what other, less visible things does stress do to us?
"For one thing, stress makes you stupid," says Carter Harkins, co-founder of MindLev.com, one of a handful of new companies in the growing Brain Training and Fitness market. "MRI scans of chronically stressed people often show parts of the brain in the process of atrophy. It's well-understood that stress neurochemicals and hormones suppress cognitive brain function. It's why you feel like you can't make a decision, think clearly or remember things when you're stressed all the time. Those negative thoughts and feelings are killing your neurons."
Indeed, there is good evidence to support such statements. Cortisol, one of the body's stress hormones, has been observed in laboratory settings to actually destroy brain cells in the hippocampus region of the brain. The hippocampus is active in the consolidation of short-term and long-term memory, and is one of the first areas affected by Alzheimer's disease.
"The damage to the brain caused by stress doesn't have to be permanent," Harkins adds. "The hippocampus is known for generating new cells and synapses, but you have to deal with the stress first. It all starts with triggering your brain's natural relaxation response." Harvard Associate Professor of Medicine Herbert Benson was the first to describe and term this brain and body phenomenon as The Relaxation Response, and published a book by the same name in 1975. Much of the current research into the benefits and neurological effects of meditation stem from his earliest findings and methods.
"Almost 40 years later, what we now know about meditation is staggering", says Harkins, referring to the recent flood of published research. "Meditation reduces blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates. It oxygenates the body. It improves immune system response. It increases levels of dopamine, serotonin, HGH and endorphins. It decreases cortisol and epinephrine. It regulates body temperature. It changes the electrical activity occurring in the brain, making it more coherent. It even changes and strengthens the physiology of the brain, permanently altering it, promoting things like better cognitive abilities, a better sense of self and others, and a durable sense of well-being and happiness that no drug can duplicate."
Those are pretty impressive recent discoveries for a practice that's been around for thousands of years. Perhaps April is a perfect time to begin exploring meditation and relaxation as a means to reduce stress and improve the quality of life in stressful times.