This month's issue of AARP's magazine (yes, I admit to being over 50!) features an article by TV's Dr. Oz about the physiological impact of stress on the brain. He says: "I've seen how excess cortisol (along with adrenaline, a hormone produced by the body in response to stress) places a massive strain on the heart. Now scientists are learning how cortisol affects the brain, too. Excess cortisol, researchers suspect, may surpress neurogenesis, the brain's ability to create and support new brain cells". In other words, "stressing out" may actually harm your intelligence, not just your body.
Dr. Oz's prescription for turning off the cortisol? "Two key stress fighters," he says, "are exercise and sex. While exercise increases cortisol in the short term, over time it decreases anxiety and boosts neurogenesis - likely by improving blood flow to the brain. Even more intriguing, the brain cells created during exercise may be more resilient against future episodes of stress. Sex seems to have similar benefits. In a recent animal study, a single sexual experience caused a short-term surge of cortisol, just as exercise does. But multiple sexual experiences, daily over two weeks, reduced the release of cortisol, increased neurogenesis, and decreased anxiety-like behavior".
I have no doubt that following Dr. Oz's advice would lead to reducing the effects of stress. For most people, however, the problem with his advice is its implementation. Who would contest that exercise is beneficial? Or that sex is soothing? Unfortunately, most people find exercise intimidating, boring, embarrassing, unpleasant, or just too difficult. And while there are probably few among us who wouldn't love to be having sex more frequently, exactly how to make that happen is a puzzle relatively few of us can easily solve.
Dr. Oz focuses on bodily techniques to reduce cortisol. It will probably come as no surprise that my emphasis in discussing stress reduction will be on the mind.
The mind's power to impact our bodies is underappreciated, in great part due to the mind / body split that had its origins with Plato, and two thousand years later was reconceptualized by Descartes, who held that mind is a non-physical substance. The predominate Western view of the mind consists of such non-corporeal concepts as ideas, memories, and emotions, but Western science also acknowledges the impact of mind on the physical body. So although we tend to think of our minds and our bodies as distinct and separate, in fact they are simply two parts of an interconnected whole. You can prove the connection between mind and body for yourself by thinking of an arousing sexual fantasy and noticing, depending on one's sex, the erection or lubrication that results. Or by thinking about the death of someone you deeply loved, and feeling the tears form in your eyes. Or by observing how your heart rate increases just before you engage in a difficult conversation, or a public presentation.
In our 21st century world, stress results primarily from how we think about the challenges facing us, rather than the challenges in and of themselves. And often, the culprit in our thinking is the tendency we have to lump together pieces of a challenge that would be much more calmly, and therefore more effectively, handled by separating the pieces. For example, a problem about which many clients consult with me is transitioning to a new, unknown career is very anxiety / stress producing: "I have no idea what I want to do, but I know that what I'm doing is not it. How will I ever come up with an answer?" The general approach I use is to break down this daunting problem into much smaller pieces; reading a book on career transitioning, then perhaps talking with a few close friends to get their insights, or looking at a variety of job postings, etc.
Another technique is to self-soothe, thinking of such calming, reassuring thoughts as: "I can get expert help in addressing this iisue," "I've encountered difficult problems before and I've solved them," "I know that there's an answer to this problem somewhere out there," or "millions of people have faced exactly the same challenge and have figured it out - there's no reason why I shouldn't be able to". And indeed, there isn't.