How Stress Affects Brain Function & 8 Ways to De-stress

Stressing out is the worst.

I’m currently feeling New Mum Stress. Can someone say Bed Time? My spidey senses are heightened to the max. I hear even the slightest movement or ‘coo’ and I go into hyper-rescue mode. Other stressors I have felt include Work Stress, Family Stress, and Boyfriend Stress.

Everybody knows that stress is bad for you. But how bad is it? And how can we make it better?

Well let me tell ya! As I’ve been studying this topic for my Master’s degree in Behavioural Decision Science, I thought I would put this knowledge to good use and share.

In the Annual Review of Neuroscience, Phelps and Lempert found various connections between emotion (stress/mood) and decision-making, and more specifically, how stress can seriously alter brain function. As the review is quite long, I’ve highlighted the main points as simply as possible.

Quick biology lesson. When you are stressed the brain thinks you are in danger and the nerve sends a signal down the spinal cord to the adrenal gland which releases the hormone adrenaline and increases the amount of sugar in the blood, increases heart rate, and raises blood pressure.

The hypothalamus sends a signal to the pituitary gland and stimulates the adrenal cortex to produce a stress hormone called cortisol, which keeps blood sugar and blood pressure up to help you escape from danger.

However, we aren’t really in danger which is why we need to learn how to de-stress. Due to evolution, our emotions drive our instincts and in turn alter our cognitive abilities.

Here are some of the effects of stress found from this study,

  • You are more likely to be selfish.
  • You are more likely to take risky choices.
  • You are more likely to make poor judgments in personal moral decisions.
  • You are more likely to make impulsive decisions.
  • You are more likely to make egocentric moral decisions.
  • You will tend to use previously learned information (habitual) to problem solve even when that is not the best route to solve the problem.

Not only does stress effect life choices, they found that mood can alter decision making abilities as well. 

  • When you are sad, you are more likely to buy products at a higher price
  • A disgust mood makes you want to buy and sell products at lower prices
  • Sad moods can increase preferences toward high-risk options, whereas anxious moods bias preferences toward low-risk options (Raghunathan & Pham 1999).
  • Fear results in less risk seeking and anger results in more risk seeking
  • Positive moods can exaggerate the tendency to overweigh losses relative to gains (i.e., loss aversion) in risky gambles (Isen et al. 1988)

So, now that we know stress and mood is proven to effect a majority of our daily decisions, the big question is, how do we learn to de-stress?

WINE! obviously.

But for real…. here are scientifically proven ways to de-stress (although I do think wine has been proven to lower blood pressure….).

  1. Go for a walk. The endorphins from light exercise will let your blood flow freely back into your brain so that you can start feeling right as rain!
  2. Sex! Oxytocin is a big pain reliever and levels out your hormones. It’s been proven that even kissing relieves stress by awakening the endorphins. So even if you’re not feeling in the mood, give your loved one a wee kiss!
  3. Listen to music. This is my fav. Music lowers blood pressure and slows your heart rate. The blood flows to your brain and increases dopamine levels.
  4. Eat something. No, no, not the Cheetos! Grab a healthy snack that is filling, like an avocado or banana. Potassium regulates blood pressure. “The connection between the gut and brain is huge — called the ‘gut-brain axis’ — and lots of interesting data supports the idea that the gut is a major mediator of the stress response,” Dr. Drew Ramsey, an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the author of The Happiness Diet
  5. Watch some stand-up or surf through YouTube. Laughter is key to making you feel better as it releases lots of endorphins. “Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, stimulates your heart, lungs and muscles, and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain,” explains the Mayo Clinic.
  6. Turn off your phone! It’s proven that your phone is a source of anxiety. Check out this article by EverDay Health. In their study they found, “The more often someone checks a phone for personal reasons the more stress rises.”
  7. Breathe deeply 10 times. Sometimes you need more than 10 breaths, but this is an average of how many times you should breathe in for 5 seconds and breathe out for 7 seconds. Basically, breathe in for as long as you can and then breathe out for longer. You need to breathe deeply as if you’re making a balloon shape in your stomach. (For More, 6 Breathing Exercises to Relax in 10 Minutes or Less)
  8. Go see a friend! Studies show that being around friends decreases production of cortisol (that nasty stress chemical!). Grab your boots and get walking to see that friend!

Hopefully this sheds light on how much stress can alter your daily life so that you make the adjustments you need to live a more stress-free existence!


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