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Maximizing Brain Health Through Stress Management

stress hurts brain healthWe probably do not need to state the obvious here, but managing stress is beneficial for reasons related to brain health that you may not have considered previously. This impacts a Certified Brain Fitness Coach because of the importance of including a stress management aspect to any brain fitness programming you provide to a client. The importance of this cannot be emphasized enough.

In previous posts, we have previously discussed nonconstructive negative thinking or excessive worrying and its impact on the brain. This behavior plays a role in maintaining chronic stress levels. We then learned that dehydration – even as low as 1-2% – impacts cognition and mood regulation. We have examined the clinical evidence of how an internal stressor – namely excess weight on the body – results in impairments in brain blood flow and volume as a result of chronic inflammation. We have also learned how chronic stress elevates chemicals, like cortisol, and epinephrine, resulting in a reduction of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

The ability to control and guide one’s thought patterns, dietary habits, and body composition, can be instrumental in brain function.

In current times of digital convenience, stress can come in many forms – long daily commutes, work demands, pressure from employers or customers (or clients), or just the stress that can occur in nurturing and providing for a family can be overwhelming. What about maintaining a healthy, loving relationship with a spouse? It seems we are constantly bombarded by some form of stress, be it from within the invisible realm of harmful electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from our smartphones and computers, or any of the electrical equipment which creates electromagnetic interference in the body. Stress comes from a home which lacks a “green environment”.

The most impactful stress factors related to cognitive aging include hormones, with cortisol being a crucial mediating factor. Since cortisol is part of the human stress response, coaches should be aware of its impact on Brain Fitness Coaching.

A systemic dysregulation in the form of inflammation or metabolic dysregulation can manifest as reduced neuroplasticity, rumination, intrusive thinking, distraction, repetitive thoughts and emotional reactivity. Coach work (strategies) to suppress such dysregulation is personalized when we know our client’s lifestyle and their typical activities. A daily practice of meditation, yoga, deep breathing, hypnosis, specific types of exercise targeted to your brain nutritional support, or managing automatic negative thoughts are all coachable behaviors.

Stress is necessary, we are not looking to eliminate it; as coaches, we are looking to diminish it and maybe more importantly, we are looking to help our client respond to stress more effectively.

Defining Stress

We all think we know what stress is but many times we are describing a feeling in the moment, leaving out the fact that it is a necessary part of our lives. Stress can have both beneficial and negative effects on our system!

In humans, the stress response is primarily determined by our perceptions – usually tied to an event, transition, or problem. For most Coaches, the first step is to identify the extent that your client is experiencing stress symptoms in their body.

Physical symptoms of stress include muscle spasms, tension headaches, fatigue, shortness of breath, dry mouth, elevated heart rate, nail-biting, teeth grinding, jaw pain, increased susceptibility to colds, and insomnia.

Emotional or mental symptoms of stress include the inability to focus, impaired decision making, and experiencing brain fog. More emotional symptoms of stress include mood changes such as anxiety, depression, anger, panic attacks, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, confusion, impatience, restlessness, helplessness, and defensiveness.

Environmental symptoms of stress can include social withdrawal, or concerns related to changes in appetite, sleep, or libido. These factors demonstrate how stress can have a significant impact on our physiology, psychology, and behavior.

Due to strong evidence that supports mind/body strategies in published literature, Brain Fitness Coaches are encouraged to use breath-based meditations and movements in support of improving everything from cognitive function, which includes enhancing brain reserves, to promoting emotional regulation, enhancing physical performance, preserving your physiological function, supporting a connection of the mind to the body, and promoting a deep level of relaxation and self-awareness.

Boosting Cognitive Reserve

Perhaps one of the easiest strategies to try with a client is learning the practice of breath meditation and movement to enhance cognitive reserve. The concept of cognitive reserve is very important in brain health. When we are young, we have a certain amount of cognitive reserve or resilience to neuropathological damage. As part of the aging process, our ability to have cognitive reserve diminishes due to genetics, the environment, poor diet, and lifestyle habits.

Those having higher cognitive reserve – whether this is through having more brain volume per se, or having enhanced neural connectivity – have a greater threshold before any clinical issues occur. Simply put, the more cognitive reserve you have, the less likely you are to have brain issues.

Mind/body strategies are also preferred for their ability to promote a deeper sense of relaxation and self- awareness. This can be a significant challenge for many of your clients, especially since we seem to live in a 24/7 news cycle, not to mention the dynamics of social media and its influence on life. All of these innovations in digital technology have advanced at an unprecedented pace, placing a physical and physiological stress on our mind and body.

Being exposed to more news, often negative in tone, elevates stress levels. Add to this our sense of hyper- connectivity to the outer world, it is now more important than ever to our health that we learn ways to connect to our inner world so that the nervous system can relax, thereby supporting the body’s natural ability to regenerate and be whole.

One option to decrease stress is to suggest a weekly massage or acupuncture, but understandably that can be cost prohibitive to some. A CBFC should then know other options we can promote that can be done conveniently, in the comfort of a client’s home environment.

Techniques to Inspire Clients

In a perfect world, we would have each client engage in daily activities that promote overall positive brain fitness and somatic health. Our goal is to simply enhance focus and energy, while providing a deep sense of relaxation and calm. As a Coach promoting a strategy and recommendation, the goal is to select which one is most appropriate for your client.

Meditation is a great way to clear the mind. This can be in a group setting or in solitary – it is very accessible to most. The goal is to use techniques using basic posture awareness to facilitate breath work (such as deep breathing).

Some clients come to us with varying levels of physical activity; those who prefer to engage in movement may enjoy trying yoga. Due to the variety in types of yoga, you may suggest a practice or style that uses a series of coordinated movements with breaths to flow from one pose to the next, referred to as Vinyasa yoga. The type of yoga done in a heated studio in a class geared towards physical fitness is referred to as Power Vinyasa Flow.

Dynamic yoga is a practice that uses more advanced poses for strengthening, balance, flexibility, and agility. Sport yoga falls into this category. It is focused on unifying the mind, body and spirit. This form of yoga is ideal for a client who has issues with anxiety, stress, or headaches. Combining strategies is also very powerful for some; for example, adding instructions for diaphragmatic breathing (abdominal breathing or belly breathing) is a safe experiment to attempt due to its ability to interrupt the fight or flight response.

Some clients are simply restless. They find it difficult to stay still; you may see this in clients when you are simply having dialogue with them. For this client, using cues to help them focus is accomplished by tapping into the parasympathetic nervous system. This is done through the use of a word or a phrase to keep the mind from wandering, as well as having a passive attitude (being open-minded about the process, in this case).

Meditation truly entails a broad range of actions. These include self-regulation practices that focus on different goals; it may be for awareness and attention, to bring mental processes under control. Or, it could be a stylized mental technique that brings a heightened sense of alertness, awareness, and bliss to the practice of deep reflection and contemplation. Some also experience a state of altered consciousness with various forms of meditation.

Meditation has been shown to have profound effects on the body, as noted in the evidence-based research originating back to 1931, with over 4,000 articles published in the national library of medicine database from the NIH. Of course, we already know what neuroimaging studies on meditators have shown. This distinction of change in multiple brain regions, as compared to non-meditators, shows that there is an increased cortical thickness and gray matter volume among those with a meditation regimen.

Much research exists on the efficacy of mindfulness-based meditations to reduce symptoms associated with psychiatric disorders. This includes anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic pain, in addition to improving well-being and quality of life.

Mindfulness meditation involves awareness of the present moment experience with a compassionate, non-judgmental stance. It changes the perception of the individual, allowing one’s thoughts and feelings to be recognized within a broader field of awareness.

Yoga

Yoga is one of the many wonderful alternatives to exercise that has tremendous benefits to the body and mind. Yoga is comprised of various domains of practice, which includes postures, regulated breathing, and meditation, among other things to enhance health and well-being, while simultaneously improving gray matter volume and increasing cortical thickness in the brain.

The benefits of yoga are numerous; it can serve to improve flexibility, balance and coordination, muscle strength, muscle tone, and respiration. The breath work is every yoga practice promotes energy and vitality through the movement of life force, improved circulatory health, and support for connective tissue, lymphatic drainage, and reduction of cortisol production from the adrenals. One of the most important health benefits is enhanced sleep.

Diaphragmatic Breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of breath work that allows for the expansion of the lungs and greater oxygenation of the system. It is also referred to as lower body breathing and is the natural form of breathing that we all did when we were children. Unfortunately, we often grow out of this natural state of breathing and create a habit of upper body breathing – or chest breathing – which keeps us in a state of hyper-vigilance or fight or flight.

Essentially, diaphragmatic breathing is a discipline that reminds our body how to breathe in a healthy way that supports the parasympathetic nervous system. This allows us to stay calm and relaxed. Ideally, this prevents us from falling back into the common practice of engaging in shallow breathing.

The average person takes between 12 to 20 breaths per minute; shallow breathing or chest breathing occurs when you take more than this number of breaths in a minute. Chest breathing involves drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles, rather than through the lungs by using the diaphragm.

It is common to see individuals with anxiety as shallow breathers. This can lead to symptoms of lightheadedness, rapid heart rate, fatigue, and feeling faint.

To perform diaphragmatic breathing, one hand is placed on the belly, while the other hand rests on the chest. This is followed by a slow and deep inhalation through the nose, usually for a count of 10 – or until the abdomen or the belly is full. The next step is a slow exhalation for a similar count. This is repeated five to ten times one easy way to learn how to do this form of breathing is to buy a small yoga pillow and place it on the diaphragm. With practice, expanding the diaphragm will allow the pillow to rise and fall. This will teach your client how to engage their calming parasympathetic system.

Diaphragmatic breathing has numerous benefits, including lowering blood sugar and blood pressure, stimulates the release of the feel- good neurotransmitter serotonin, as well as growth hormone. It also

supports the removal of free radicals, improves mental focus and clarity, and can improve the quality of sleep. One of the most important benefits is its ability to reduce cortisol and other stress hormones in the body.

For a client having sleeping concerns from stress, suggest practicing diaphragmatic breathing every night – just as if it were an exercise regimen.

The Relaxation Response

As a form of meditation, the relaxation response tends to be well received by those with busy minds.

Physician Herbert Benson was a pioneer in studying the physiological changes that occurred during meditation techniques. Since 1968, he published over 55 articles on how the relaxation response has positive impacts on health.

These include:

  • reducing blood pressure
  • stress management in the workplace
  • promoting well-being
  • reducing PMS symptoms
  • reducing headaches and migraines
  • changes in body temperature
  • resolving insomnia
  • reduce anxiety prior to surgery

The relaxation response uses a mental cue such as the word om or really any soothing sound that has no meaning or association in order to keep the individual focused will work. The goal is to avoid the stimulation of unnecessary thoughts.

This technique is meant to be done with a passive attitude, training the body into a state of relaxation. Most clients will find it easy to follow and is an effective way to engage people in getting comfortable with meditation and learning how to sit still. This is simple, but for some is easier said than done.

Concluding Thoughts

Brain Fitness Coaches can be effective with reducing stress levels for clients. Herbal remedies can have a powerful impact on reducing stress in the body. Science also contributes to our understanding the cause and effects of stress. Objective testing using brain imaging technologies, including quantitative EEG, and the subjective verbal feedback of clients can be paired with work reported through research and work in the clinical setting to reinforce our understanding of stress. Now, the growth of adaptogenic herbs to attenuate stress in the body is creating new interest. Rhodiola rosea, is known as an adaptogenic plant. It grows in the cold mountainous regions of the world – including the arctic – Iceland, Russia, Scandinavia and the Alps. Since this plant has adapted to conditions of high Altitude and low oxygen, it contains protective compounds that have beneficial effects in the body.

Extracts from this plant have been used to enhance physical and mental performance, fight fatigue, and support a positive mood. Adaptogens have the properties that enable the body to better handle stress, anxiety, and fatigue. These substances increase the availability of energy during the day, reduce feelings of stress, enhance endurance, and promote a restful sleep. The second is Ashwagandha, a shrub found in India, Nepal and Pakistan, that is commonly used for its anti-stress properties. Ashwagandha is an adaptogen, It helps to rejuvenate and energize the nervous system, in addition to increasing physical endurance.

Finally, Panax is an option; a ginseng a plant with fleshy roots, it grows in the northern hemisphere of eastern Asia, Korea and Russia. It is used to support energy and focus. If your client is under significant stress, in addition to using these adaptogens, you will want to include nutrients discussed in lesson 4 (a foundational multivitamin, spirulina, vitamins B, C and D and magnesium).

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