Stressed Out? Push a Button to Rewire Your Brain

Have you been feeling stressed lately?  Chances are you have.  One recent Gallup poll showed that the percent of people in America experiencing stress has grown to nearly 80%, half of whom reported being “very or extremely stressed.”  A client recently asked me if I ever feel stressed.  Absolutely!  I must confess that running my own medical practice can cause me a fair amount of stress sometimes.  You, me, and virtually everyone today lives with some form of stress, yet most people don’t realize how profoundly it can affect their health.

First let’s define what stress is not – it’s not the actual events in your life.  Events are simply events.  Stress is not what happens to you – it’s how your body reacts to those events.  When you are faced with a stressful situation, your body produces a “stress response” to give you a boost of energy to deal with the situation.  In evolutionary terms, this “fight or flight” response, produced by the sympathetic nervous system, is what helped us escape from that hungry saber tooth tiger that was eying us up for dinner.

A certain amount of stress is good for us and the stress response is essential to life because it allows us to deal with the numerous challenges that arise in our ever-changing modern day world.  But stress hormones are designed to work well over a short period of time for acute - not chronic - stress.  Another problem is that the primitive part of our brain which controls our sympathetic response can’t tell the difference between a real threat, such as that pesky tiger, or a mind-made threat, such as worrying about losing your job.

As you can imagine, most of us today spend far too much time in a sympathetic state. Whether the cause of chronic sympathetic activity is the ever increasing pace of our American lifestyle, our jobs, our relationships, traffic, bills, etc., the effect is the same: high levels of circulating cortisol and adrenaline - two hormones produced by our adrenal glands - leading to various health problems such as hormonal imbalance, poor sleep, impaired memory, depression, premature aging, muscle loss and fat gain.  Ouch!

Classic stress reduction techniques such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing and leisure activities (reading, listening to music, hobbies, etc.) can be very helpful and are all things I regularly recommend to my clients.  One of the things I personally like to do to unwind is head to a cafe with a favorite magazine or two.  While reading Outside magazine a few months back I was intrigued by an article by Kate Siber describing a new approach to beat stress.  For the article she interviewed Don Joseph Goewey, a leader in the field of stress management, and author of Mystic Cool, an excellent thoroughly researched book on how to transcend stress.

According to Goewey, many studies over the past decade have shown that it's possible to increase blood flow to certain areas of your brain, create new neurons, and strengthen neural pathways simply by directing your thoughts.  That does sound cool, huh?  Neuroplasticity, as this phenomenon is called, has been used to treat such disorders as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and even dyslexia.  Now stress management experts like Goewey have begun developing mental exercises to alleviate a more widespread affliction: stress.  Check out Goewey’s “The Clear Button” exercise described in the article by clicking here.

Just think, you can literally rewire your brain and over time reverse the ill effects of stress just by learning a new way of thinking.  More evidence that the most powerful pharmacy you have is between your ears!  I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Mystic Cool.  The book includes much more in-depth information regarding stress reduction as well as multiple exercises (you can download them as MP3s after purchase of the book) that you can use on a daily basis. Click here for more information on the book.

I plan on using Goewey’s approach over the next few months.  I know my brain could use a little rewiring…how about yours?