What the New Neuroscience Tells Us About Stress Management

Reading a science article in this morning’s NYTimes magazine, I was struck by how much new and useful information on stress relief is available today.  More than 25 years ago I taught an occasional night school course on stress management.  At that time we knew a lot about biofeedback, the skills of emotion management and how our perceptions play a huge role in building or deescalating personal stress.  I knew that I usually felt stress in my gut first, often long before I could name it.  That, of course, made it possible for me to start managing my stress before it built up.  I also knew that if I was on a creative jag and had come to a dead-end, there were several basic options: sleep, exercise and good nutrition.  For example, project development can be stressful.  My modus operandi has been habituated over the years.  When working on a project, I usually dig up as much data as possible and start writing.  Usually the act of writing surfaces all kinds of issues, makes mental connections, offers other suggestions, and pushes me to dig up further data.  The rule is obvious:  stop thinking and planning and just start writing.  But sometimes the ideas won’t come.  When that happens, I set the material aside, go about my business, and shortly before bedtime, run over the data and material again for 30 minutes or so, and then hit the sack.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, either in the middle of the nite or when I wake in the morning, the issues have clarified themselves–and resolved my stress.  Scientists tell us that though the body is asleep, the brain is busily making connections.  And that’s my experience.  I’ve also learned from practice that no matter how stressed I am about business issues, my project work or even personal or family issues, exercise is key to relieving that stress.  I am constantly amazed at how effective a brisk walk of 30 minutes to an hour (I can no longer jog because of an idiopathic neuropathy) can clear out the mind, suggest resolutions and enliven me.  Scientists have known for sometime that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells as well as enhances the connections of those brain cells.  In effect, exercise remodels the brain, enabling us to deal more effectively with stress.  Cool, eh?The Times article reported on fascinating findings by researchers at Princeton University.  As I noted previously, scientists have been aware that exercise stimulates the creation of new brain cells, but not how that took place.  In the research, the scientists permitted one group of rats to run, but the other group were not permitted to exercise.  Then all of the rats were placed in cold water, requiring them to swim, which rats don’t like to do.  Afterward they looked at the brains.  What they found was that swimming activated neurons in both sets of rats.  However, the brains of the rats that had been on the exercise regimen were less likely to bear the marks of stress.  Generally, they remained quiet.  What they concluded was that the rats that had been running had developed brain cells that essentially buffered those rats from stress.  In a related study at the University of Colorado, rats that had run for several weeks . .  were less anxious and helpless despite the stress placed upon them.The lesson is clear.  Don’t quit your running (or in my case, brisk walking).  You won’t get the magical reduction of stress after your first jog if you haven’t been running.  But the molecular and biochemical changes will begin.  As I found out years ago, eventually the changes  become profound.Successful careers are not built merely upon the so-called work skills, but also upon good nutrition, regular sleep, and REGULAR EXERCISE.
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