The Effects of Minor Stress on Brain Health

It is well known that prolonged exposure to chronic stress can lead to serious health consequences, including heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and even, it is conjectured, to schizophrenia. The mechanism responsible for causing these illnesses has been the subject of numerous studies, which uniformly concluded that high levels of the stress hormone cortisol were responsible for havoc that affects the brain health and memory.

The subject of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among veterans has been the subject of numerous reports and research articles. It is also a subject that has appeared frequently in the news. Further, it has been shown that individuals in a variety of difficult situations, for example people from dysfunctional families, people in abusive relationships, and even young mothers, often experience the same symptoms of PTSD as war veterans.

Recently, a team of researchers led by Dr. Robert Stawski, a professor at the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon’s State University, decided to study a related question, a question that is relevant for all of us. It is obvious that extreme trauma, like that experienced by soldiers in combat, or by children who have suffered abuse, can cause long-term, serious health problems. However, how do the small, daily stresses we face in life effect our health? In particular, how do they affect the health of our brains as we age?

The team’s research led to the conclusion that the small, daily stresses of everyday life are not necessarily harmful in and of themselves, but that our reactions to them have an enormous impact on our health, and, in particular, on the health of our brain. Their findings have recently been published in Psychosomatic Medicine, the journal of the American Psychosomatic Society.

The team examined more than 100 seniors between the ages of 65 and 95 for more than two and a half years, evaluating the cognitive health of these participants every six months. The researchers used a series of standardized tests, shown in previous studies to be good indicators of an individual’s “response time inconsistency,” a marker for impaired cognitive function and poor brain health.

During the course of the study, the participants repeated these tests and assessments approximately 30 times. The researchers also carefully investigated the stresses that each participant had experienced that day, as well as any other stressful situations they were experiencing, for example the poor health of a family member. Each stressful event was scored in two ways: the negativity of the emotion associated with the stressful experience, and the intensity of the emotion.

The study found statistically valid data showing that individuals whose response to small, day-to-day stresses were more negative and of higher intensity, had greater response time inconsistency, reflecting worse brain health.

Being stuck in a traffic jam, missing an appointment, having to wait too long in a line, and similar events are unavoidable. But our reactions to these events is within our control.

The takeaway message for us is to learn that when a minor unpleasant event occurs, we should take a deep breath and accept the fact that life runs its course without asking our opinion of how things should go. If we are able to let go a bit, and accept life on its own terms, we will be happier and healthier, and our cognitive abilities will remain stable longer.

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