Our brains are the most profoundly complex objects in the known universe. Billions of cells link with one another to forge trillions of connections that are constantly shifting and remapping themselves over the course of our lifetime.
When we think about the brain, we might not consider it to be a part of the body that we have much control over. Unlike our teeth or our biceps, most of us probably don’t have a regime that we follow to improve and maintain our brain health. Yet studies have shown that resilience against the effects of dementia, stroke, and other age-related health afflictions can be greatly enhanced if we take more active care of our brain.
Luckily, there are plenty of things we can do to improve our brain health, and they have the added benefit of simultaneously enhancing our overall mood and energy levels. Neuroplasticity is the word given to our brain’s ability to adapt and change, to create new connections between neurons and reconfigure existing ones. The more connections our brains form, the more resilient we can be to challenges, able to think through problems objectively and with greater clarity.
Stress can be a huge factor in healthy brain development, in both positive and negative ways. A brain that is stimulated and challenged is a brain that is busy learning and remembering new things. For the brain, this sort of activity is just as important as exercise for our muscles or brushing for out teeth. Any kind of challenge, however, is accompanied by some degree of stress. This isn’t a bad thing in itself, and our brains are more than capable of overcoming limited, targeted levels of stress if we put our minds to achieving certain goals or completing tasks like learning a language or a musical instrument.
On the other hand, chronic stress and burnout can have a detrimental effect not just on our mental health, but on the physical structuring of the brain itself. Repeated negative thought patterns over a period of time begin to shift the centre of activity in the brain, away from the deliberative, rational processes of the frontal lobes and into the reflexive knee-jerk response of the amygdala.
Stress can come in many forms, and psychological stress is just as real as any external pressures from work or family life. In overcoming stress, it’s important to be kind to ourselves, realistic with our expectations, and present in the moment. It might sound cliché, but regular exercise, a healthy diet, and proper restful sleep are all extremely important factors. Beyond any sense of broader well-being, studies have shown that their cumulative effect is extremely beneficial to brain health, helping to combat the effects of chronic stress at a neurological level. Aerobic exercise, for example, has been found to increase the size of the hippocampus, a hugely important area of the brain for learning and memory.
Ultimately, both too much and too little stress is damaging to our long-term brain health. If we want to be at our best well into old age, we need to find a sweet spot where we are challenging ourselves without feeling overwhelmed. Of course, every individual is unique. That’s why it’s worth taking the time to find what works for us as individuals – whether that means taking up a new skill or putting down some old habits.