Category Archives: Stress Solutions

One Way to Calculate Your Daily Stress Level

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Think about your day today or any day. Is anything causing you to be upset or worried? Are you  working on a timeline, for example, or have a deadline? Is today one of those days that you have too many things on your list? Check the list below and assign a value based on the duration of the aggravation or situation. If the situation or problem lasts less than an hour, assign a number value of 1. If it lasts for several hours, give it a 3. If the situation is chronic, assign a value of 5. Continue reading

Can a Single Stressful Event Cause Long-term Effects in the Brain?

Dr. Daniela Kaufer and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that Chronic stress triggers long-term changes in brain structure and function. (Molecular Psychiatry 2014) Kaufer’s research proposes a mechanism that could explain some changes in the brains of people with PTSD. She found that PTSD patients develop a stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and the amygdala (the seat of the brain’s fight or flight response). And, they develop a lower connectivity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, which moderates our responses. For the most part, it has been generally accepted that brain changes as a function of stress are based on repeated or chronic stress. Continue reading

Technology to the Rescue

It’s about Time! Instead of technology increasing our stress, new apps are coming out that aim at helping us stay healthy and combat stress. In the last operating system upgrade (iOS 10) for MAC iPhones and iWatches, there is attention paid to reminders and apps that remind you to breathe or spend a few minutes of Mindfulness time. Continue reading

Are you one of those people who routinely over commits yourself?

If you are one of us who says “Yes” every time someone asks if you want to do something, then you are your own worst enemy. A primary cause of stress is feeling the pressure of time. The more we try to cram into a day, the more we become aware of how time can fly by or how much longer it takes to do something than we thought it would. Continue reading

Stress Linked to Increased Risk of Dementia

Chronic stress has become not only a #1 health risk , but also a major way of life for too many of us. If you are honest with yourself, the risk of dementia is more frightening than a heart attack. We can survive a heart attack but once dementia sets in, there is no escape – to date. The important link for all us neuroscientists is how anxiety, fear, and stress affect the brain. Continue reading

Two New Studies on Stress May Surprise

Stress is contagious. Research from St. Louis University suggests that other people’s anxiety and behavior may be harmful to your health. The negative effects of stress, such as increased levels of cortisol, can be triggered by merely observing another person who is acting stressed. Empathy – usually thought of as a good attribute – can be a drain if you watch someone else get negative feedback. Continue reading

Reducing the Room’s Temperature can Increase the Quality of Your Sleep

You probably know how important good sleep is to your overall health. Not only getting enough sleep but the QUALITY of your sleep is the key factor in your protection against many diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. A 2010 study published in the Annals of Epidemiology showed that regularly getting less than six hours of sleep per night can lead to a higher risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes. For their study, researchers asked participants to fill out questionnaires about their health and sleep patterns. The researchers analyzed six years’ worth of data from just under 1,500 participants, all between the ages of 35 and 79. They identified several ways to improve the quality of sleep. One of the most surprising findings was the effects of room temperature on the quality of sleep.

It is best to sleep cool. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to sleep when it gets too hot? That’s because the core temperature of your body needs to be cool in order for you to sleep well. The optimal room temperature for sleep is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Any warmer than that, and your body may not be able to cool as much as it needs to for truly restful sleep. Sleeping cool may even help relieve insomnia.

A body of research is finding that regulating sleep temperature may bring some relief to sufferers of insomnia. According to Dr. Cameron Van den Heuvel, a research fellow involved in a 2009 study of body temperature and sleep performed by the University of South Australia’s Centre for Sleep Research: “Temperature regulation is a significant factor in each of the two types of insomnia. The difference is when the insomnia occurs. People with sleep onset insomnia have difficulty initiating sleep at the beginning of the night, taking two to four hours each night in the worst cases; while people with sleep maintenance insomnia fall asleep easily but have trouble staying asleep, waking up multiple times during the night… In both types of insomnia, sleep is not restful and sufferers are tired during the day.”

Studies of sleep onset insomniacs show that they have consistently warmer core body temperature immediately before initiating sleep, when compared with normal healthy adults. This results in a state of heightened arousal that prevents them from falling asleep when they go to bed, probably because they have to wait for their bodies to lose the heat that’s keeping them awake. We’re only talking about a half to one degree but that small temperature change can result in significant differences in arousal between insomniacs and people without sleeping problems.”

If you are slow to fall asleep at night, try cooling down your room.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

Tips for Reducing Stress

Anyone who has ever suffered from chronic or moderately severe acute stress knows that you feel it physically just as much as you feel it mentally. And, it is accepted that one’s overall health can impact stress levels, both negatively and positively. In keeping with the focus on the positive, here are a couple of diet tips for reducing stress.

  1. Keep a healthy, balanced diet. A good rule of thumb is to eat for your heart. When you’re experiencing stress, your heart is experiencing it right along with you, which means that over time it can actually put your heart at risk. Keep your heart in good shape by eating a lowered fat diet with plenty of lean protein, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables. This will help lower your blood pressure, which will help keep your heart from thumping hard when you start to feel stress.
  1. Eat to actually reduce stress. When stressed, your body produces stress hormones, like cortisol, which increases sugar in the bloodstream. This is what makes us crave unhealthy food when we’re stressed. However, giving your body simple carbohydrates like candy and white bread only gives your body a quick burst of sugars, so any good effects won’t last. That’s why you need to focus on complex carbohydrates with lots of fiber, like whole grains and sweet potatoes. The carbohydrates in those foods will prompt your brain to produce more serotonin, a hormone that relaxes us, but the nutrients and positive effects will stay with you much longer.
  1. Reduce caffeine intake and increase water intake. Too much caffeine can start a vicious cycle. The more you ingest caffeine, the more you feel you need to ingest caffeine. Coffee will give you a quick boost, but the fatigue will catch up, which causes you to drink even more coffee, even though that fatigue or an inability to focus is a signal that your body needs rest. Excessive caffeine consumption can actually lead to lapses in concentration and a decrease in our overall ability to be effective. So the work becomes harder because we’re less efficient. Caffeine is a substance that naturally increases blood pressure anyway, so you pile that on top of the effects of stress, and that’s a lot of strain for your heart.
  1. Most of us drink too little water. It is a known fact that we lose cognitive efficiency as our body becomes more dehydrated. Being dehydrated by just 2% impairs performance in tasks that require attention, psychomotor, and immediate memory skills (Adan, J Am Coll Nutr, 2012). The research data on this topic can be somewhat contradictory but everyone knows drinking water is good for you. For example, if the mild dehydration is due to physical exercise, that is actually good for long-term and working memory. There is also evidence that executive functions are better preserved. And, drinking more water helps keep our weight down.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, Oct 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Stress As Positive – 2

Last month we started a review of recent research that suggests that stress has some positive benefits. Dr. Kelly McGonigal, Stanford psychologist, is researching this topic for a new book she is writing. McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. Among the studies discussed last month were the U of Wisconsin study of 29,000 respondents and a larger epidemiological study of nearly 186 million. In general people who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

In a prospective study, Dr. Michael Poulin of the University of Buffalo interviewed 850 people (34 to 93) living in Detroit, asking about major stressful events in the last year and how much time they spent in the last year actively helping others. Obituaries and death records were then tracked over the next 5 years. Dr. Poulin’s team found that every major stress event increased an individual’s risk of death by 30%. But high rates of helping others reduced the stress-induced mortality risk. So, the authors concluded that helping others is a possible antidote to the negative effects of stress.

Looking more directly at how stress can be positive, a 2013 study out of UC Berkeley showed that moderate stress can lead to cell growth in a rat’s brain learning centers. Adult rats were stressed by being immobilized in a small space for 3 hours. Two weeks later, the rats were given a fear-conditioning test. The immobilized rats showed an increased level of stress hormone corticosterone (rate equivalent to cortisol in humans) as well as an increased growth of neural stem cells in the hippocampus.

To put the information into better context: these studies do not really prove that stress is positive. They do show the benefits of doing things to manage one’s stress, such as helping others and how that can lead to positive benefits that can counter the negative effects of a major stressful life event. Some of the studies, such as the 2013 UC Berkeley study, are defining “stress” slightly differently from the host of studies that relate the health dangers of stress. The big difference is those studies that associate stress with health risk are looking at chronically high levels of stress not a 2 or 3 hour learning session, which is considered mildly stressful because any thinking increases cortisol. But, since we cannot go around all the time without thinking, it seems best to think of mild stress as a positive and chronic stress as harmful as what you need to manage by balancing it with relaxation, exercise, sleep, meditation, and many good works for others.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, September 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

Stress as Positive

Recent research suggests that stress has some positive benefits. This should not be a surprise if you realize that a big part of being human is having a nervous system that allows us to use and manage our stress. After all, would we even be able to exist without a “flight or fight” reaction? Dr. Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University psychologist who translates academic research into practical strategies for health, is looking at the “upside of stress.” Her example, however, of how stress benefits daredevils like aerialist Nik Wallenda and Evel Knievel, may go a bit too far in the opposite direction.

In his career, Evel attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980. He suffered more than 433 bone fractures his career. Knievel died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, aged 69. I am not sure that adrenalin junkies are good examples of perceiving stress positively. On the other hand, we are all familiar with the inverted U relationship between anxiety and performance where too little and too much anxiety interferes with performance but some anxiety (or in this case – stress) can be helpful.

McGonigal’s approach is to promote the idea that the harmful consequences of stress may simply be a consequence of our perception that it is bad for our health. McGonigal reviewed several studies that suggested stress may actually be correlated with longevity – if a person does not view it as a negative. Researchers at the U. of Wisconsin in Madison asked 29,000 people to rate their level of stress over the past year and to rate how much (a little, moderate amount, or a lot) they believed this stress influenced their health. Public death records were reviewed for the next 8 years to see how many of the subjects died. People who reported high levels of stress and who believed stress had a lot of impact on their health had a 43% increased risk of death. Those who reported high levels of stress but who felt it had little impact on their health were amongst the least likely to die as compared to other participants in the study.

Another study looked at the perception that stress affects health and its relation to mortality. 33.7% of nearly 186 million Americans believe that stress affects their health a lot. Those people who reported a lot of stress and a belief in the high impact of stress on their health had a 43% increased risk of premature death according to Keller et al (Health Psychol. 2012 Sept; 31(5):677-84).

Next month, we will look at other studies that suggest it is better to view stress as “mostly harmless” like the entry for Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, August 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

How Does Stress Affect Blood Pressure?

Many people believe that stress and high blood pressure are directly linked. However, this is a popular myth since blood pressure is not ‘nervous tension.’ Actually, it is more correct to say that stress can only cause temporary rises in blood pressure. Stress does not cause hypertension. Once the stressful situation has passed, blood pressure will return to whatever is ‘normal’ for that individual. And, conversely, if you are diagnosed with high blood pressure (hypertension), this does not mean you are stressed or overly anxious. You could be perfectly calm and still have hypertension. On the other hand, it is true that chronic stress can have an impact on hypertension. However, we really do not know why or how much stress actually contributes to hypertension.

Just because stress is not directly related to hypertension does not mean you can dismiss the importance of reducing stress if you are suffering from diagnosed hypertension. Particularly if your blood pressure is difficult to control, you should pay attention to the chronic stressors in your life and try to reduce them.

Even simple changes in your daily schedule can have a positive impact on your health and well-being. For example, adding a daily walk in the fresh air in the morning before work or in the evening after work can dissipate built up stress. New research indicates that taking up yoga can lower your blood pressure. Exercise in general can help reduce stress and manage weight, and being active will certainly help reduce your chances of getting high blood pressure. This doesn’t mean you have to join a gym, in fact here are some ways to quickly and easily incorporate more exercise into your day

  • Walk or bicycle rather than take the car to work
  • Take the stairs rather than the escalator or elevator • If you travel by bus get off a stop early and walk the rest of the way
  • Cycle short journeys rather than take the car
  • Walk a bit further every day with the dog
  • Get out of the office at lunchtime and have a walk

 

By far the most effective way to reduce blood pressure AND manage chronic stress is breathing. This is so easy. Five to 10 minutes of measured slow breaths where you breathe in to a shorter count and breathe out with pursed lips to a longer count is guaranteed to take you out of sympathetic distress and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. Add music to anything you do and double your benefit. This is a good time for a Relaxation Break.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, July 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).

What Really Matters?

One of the most intriguing findings of the 2014 study by the American Psychological Association on America’s stress is that overall Americans rate their stress as 4.9 on a 10-point scale where 1 is “little or no stress.” This rating is down from the 2007 level of 6.2. Despite the fact that the 2014 study shows a decrease in perceived stress, the reported stress levels remain higher than is considered healthy. Even more surprising, however, is the finding that 42% of the adults who reported in the study say that they are not doing enough to manage their stress. Twenty percent said that they are not engaging in any stress reduction strategies or behaviors at all.

The people who responded to the study reported the primary sources of stress as: money (64%), work (60%), the economy (49%), family responsibilities (47%) and personal health concerns (46%). The most frequently reported symptoms of stress included being or feeling irritable or angry (37%), feeling nervous or anxious (35%), having a lack of motivation (34%), fatigue (32%), feeling overwhelmed (32%), and being depressed or sad (32%).

Unfortunately, the study does not point out the obvious – that the sources of stress that are the most frequently cited in the 2014 study – money and work – are also among the main reasons that many people feel that they do not have enough time in the day to reduce stress because they are too busy working to make enough money.

In short, these facts and figures as well as my own experience working with people from all walks of life show that too many of us believe we have no choice. We do not have the time to find time for ourselves. And, too many of us have come to simply accept that we live in a frenetic, hassled society. The old beliefs about the early bird getting that worm and you only get what you earn are deeply ingrained. How many professionals do you know who feel somewhat guilty when they take a little much needed time off to recreate? Are you one of those who feels like you are supposed to be super busy to be successful? Have you ever refused work because you need to spend some time taking better care of you? Are you impressed by colleagues who have their fingers in many pies and are super-achievers?

If you are, please consider taking stock of what really matters to you. Is success more important than your health, happiness, and family or friends? Take a careful look at your schedule, your lifestyle. Work some relaxation activities and breaks into your schedule. It is important to make time, not find time. It is typical for younger people to believe that there is always tomorrow and you can take time for yourself when you get ahead. All too often the stress catches up in the form of having trouble falling asleep, shutting off the mind, health problems creep in, and you begin to see those tell-tale signs of premature aging. Do yourself a favor. Look at what is most important to you and adjust your lifestyle to match.

Stress Solutions

by Susan Andrews, PhD

The Psychology Times, June 2015

Dr. Susan Andrews, Clinical Neuropsychologist, is currently Clinical Assistant Professor, LSU Health Sciences Center, Department of Medicine and Psychiatry, engaged in a Phase III study on HBOT and Persistent PostConcussion Syndrome. In addition to private clinical practice, Dr. Andrews is an award-winning author of Stress Solutions for Pregnant Moms (2013).