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Stress Can Make Your Brain Stronger If You Know This

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Center for BrainHealth

According to an article in JAMA Internal Medicinestress is at least partially to blame for 60 to 80 percent of primary care visits. Studies show that those who suffer from chronic, severe stress are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s disease later in life. However, there are interesting caveats. Not all people who have experienced excessive amounts of stress are worse off, mentally or physically, than those who have not. If fact, certain people overcome major life traumas, arising from health and emotional problems, with greater mental fortitude. They are able to conquer misfortune and, in some cases, reap certain brain benefits that include improved memory, thinking, problem-solving and attention, as well as greater mental agility compared to those of similar age and backgrounds. How can this be? Do biomarkers of resilience exist in the brain? My colleague and collaborator at the Center for BrainHealth, Dr. Ian Robertson, and I have been exploring this from a neuroscience perspective. He has spent the last several decades investigating the qualities that help people build resilient brains in the face of stress. Fueled by Nietzsche’s maxim “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Dr. Robertson seeks to find out if what doesn’t kill you can also make you smarter. In short, his answer is – yes! His new book, The Stress Test: How Pressure Can Make You Stronger and Sharper, describes why, and how, in detail, but here are a few highlights from our discussion.

What are the key differences between people who can, and can’t, turn stress into benefit?


Robertson: Resilience in the face of adversity is an admirable quality, one that should not be limited to a seemingly heroic few. Science shows that our thoughts have the capacity to change the structure and chemical makeup of our brains. People who can transform the gut-wrenching feelings of anxiety into a more tolerable, if not pleasant, state of being seem to employ certain strategies.
Here are a few strategies that stand out – and tips on how to cultivate these brain-saving skills:
  • A feeling of control: People who feel they have some control over their lives, no matter the circumstances, are far more resilient. They tend to look at stress as a challenge to conquer and not a threat to fear. They are more likely to say, “I can control many things that are happening in my life,” instead of “many events in my life happen by chance.” The feeling of control appears to reduce the amount of the toxic stress hormone cortisol in the brain. This is significant because high doses of cortisol over your lifetime can shrink your hippocampus – your brain’s memory center.
  • How to get it: Reflect on a time when you felt in control. Or take a more physical approach and fake it till you make it. Take a confident stance – hold your head high, pin your shoulder blades back and spread your arms in a relaxed, space-occupying position. Striking a power pose for one or two minutes raises both testosterone levels, in men and women, and the feel-good chemical, dopamine, in your brain.
  • The will to go on: As Billy Ocean said in 1986: “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” People who overcome traumatic events can get through the tough times even when they aren’t sure of their goals. Sticking one foot in front of the other, the sheer grit of “going on,” is a key ingredient for those determined to find the positive among the terrible. The sheer will to go on switches on the brain’s left hemisphere – the reward-seeking set of brain circuits underlying goal-seeking – to override the brain’s anxiety-prone right hemisphere. If left unchecked, the right hemisphere can pull us into paralyzing rumination. Going on means retreating less.
  • Here’s how to do it: Whether you are anxious about a difficult conversation, a big presentation or some greater challenge, lightly squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds or so, relax for 15, squeeze again for 45 seconds, relax for 15 seconds and so on, while you are waiting to begin. This boosts activity in the left-front part of your brain, which increases your inclination to approach the future - and to go on.
  • Self-awareness: Self-awareness can build personal resilience in stressful situations. People who take time every now and then to step back from the daily grind to reassess their situation, and their sense of self, are more likely to cope positively with stress. Exercising self-awareness can be a painful process, and many people find subconscious avenues to avoid it, including throwing themselves into work, drinking excessively or compulsively exercising.
  • How to become more self-aware: Make time to clear-mindedly assess your strengths and limitations. Taking time to self-reflect and gain perspective activates the brain’s right frontal lobe, releasing noradrenaline – a powerful chemical that can build the brain’s gray matter and give us the mental strength to solve new problems better.
  • The ability to depersonalize: People who can rethink stressful situations and depersonalize the chain of events are able to lower activity in the parts of the brain that produce fear and anger. In other words, they tend to take things less personally.
  • How to do it: Practice being aware of your emotions and think about why you feel that way. Often, your emotional response is not based on logical facts. Reinterpreting distress as something other than a personal attack is a powerful tool that redirects brain activity from the emotional centers in the amygdala to the brain’s thinking and problem centers in the frontal lobes.
  • The ability to reinvent themselves: In the presence of self-awareness and self-reflection, those who have proven resilient to stress show an ability to adapt to new circumstances. Reinventing yourself may be as dramatic as reimagining your life as an artist – after losing your dominant hand – or as simple as recovering from an unpleasant exchange with a coworker.
  • How to do it: Contemplate ways in which you can take advantage of your strengths and adjust for your limitations. Coping with the reality of a situation, and focusing on a way forward, can act as mental stimulation that builds cognitive strength.

How much stress is too much stress?


Robertson: We can all learn to better control our minds and emotions, and by doing so, we can – within limits – turn stress to our advantage. Having a certain amount of stress in our lives is inevitable – and is actually a good thing. When we experience the physical symptoms of stress – shaky hands, sweaty palms, baited breath, racing heart, dry mouth, etc. – our bodies learn that the sensations will eventually stop, and our lives will return to normal. Facing adversity builds the mental strength necessary to contend with future stress, the same way receiving a vaccine builds immunity to fight against future illness. However, if you feel that your level of stress has outstripped your ability to cope with it, it might be time to ask for help. Seeking the help of a professional may seem daunting, but realize that stress can create changes in your brain that are detrimental to more than just your emotional state. Chronic stress can rob your brain’s performance, health and vitality. Working through the sources of your stress in a methodical way has many long-lasting health benefits. Think of seeking help as searching for a coach to help you transform what hasn’t killed you into something that can make you smarter. Your hippocampus will thank you.

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Ian Robertson, PhD

T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Chair Co-Leader, The BrainHealth Project

Sandra Bond Chapman, PhD

Chief Director Dee Wyly Distinguished Professor, School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences Co-Leader, The BrainHealth Project

Related Information

How Stress Makes Us Sharper: Ian Robertson at TEDx Trinity College Dublin

Eminent neuroscientist and founder of the Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Dr. Ian Robertson discusses his book The Stress Test and how to build resilience in the face of the pressures of everyday life.