Stress management and optimum brain power

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I RECALL WITH CRYSTAL CLARITY THE most recent conversation I had with one of the great men of modern medicine, Herbert Benson, M.D., the pioneer of stress management.

However, almost any conversation with Dr. Benson can be memorable because of the force of his personality, which is that of "a saint-soldier," as the Eastern philosophers say. He combines the compassionate, wise demeanor of a saint with the fierce dedication of a soldier. Therefore when he makes a point it sticks with you because of the personal power with which he presents it.

The point he made the last time we spoke was that to most modern people having a relaxed state of mind feels extraordinary--even though this should be the mind's ordinary condition. "The normal state of the mind," he said, "is not uptight. It's relaxed, creative, intuitive, vibrant and intelligent. It's almost magical. I call the fully relaxed mind the `magical mind."'

I'll never forget that phrase, "the magical mind." Helping my patients to achieve "magical minds" has become one of my constant goals.

To achieve this I help my patients to manage their stress because a "magical mind" is possible only when stress is held firmly in check. Make no mistake: Optimal cognitive function requires a relaxed mental state.

Most of my patients, when I first consult with them, have no idea how important stress management is to optimal cognitive function and to brain longevity. Many of them don't even know what stress actually is. They think the word refers to an outside force that causes them to feel tension. That's not stress, through--that's a "stressor."

Stress is the feeling that can result from a stressor. This may seem like a trivial distinction but it's vitally important. It means that if you don't perceive a stressor to be stressful, then it's not one.

This article is about learning how to stay stress-free, even when your life is full of stressors. It's easier than you may think.

In my book, Brain Longevity, in the chapter on nutritional therapy, I explain how to guard against stress nutritionally and how to compensate nutritionally for stress when it occurs. In effect these are strategies for putting matter over mind. In this article I'll tell you how to stop the physical effects of stress with mental techniques. You'll learn how to put mind over matter.

When you learn how to do this, you'll achieve a great victory. You will be able to drastically reduce the number of times when stressors overwhelm you, making you feel like a "leaf in the wind," buffeted by forces beyond your control. As your vulnerability to stressors begins to diminish several critically important physical changes will occur in you: your cortisol levels will decrease; your blood pressure will drop; you will more easily make new synaptic connections m your neocortex; your brain waves will shift more frequently to the relaxed, high-focus alpha and theta frequencies; and your neurotransmitters will function far more efficiently.

Each of these changes may improve significantly the current power of your brain. Your memory may become sharper. Your thought processes may operate more quickly and easily. You may become happier. Your brain may regenerate. And your life may get better.

You will also be better able to achieve brain longevity and to enjoy your current high level of cognitive function for the rest of your life.

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Before I tell you how to rid yourself of stress, though, let's look at some of the more common causes of chronic, long-term stress.

In the past you've probably seen various stress indexes--such as the well-known Holmes-Rahe index--which rank stressors on a scale of one to 100. I think the existing stress indexes can be helpful but I believe they all share a common failing in that they don't factor in the individual's perception of the stressor. They seem to presume that all people respond to particular stressors uniformly and that's simply not true. People respond differently to stressors. As I've mentioned, the critical element in stress is not what happens to you but how you respond to it.

For example, in most stress indexes being fired from a job is rated as a mid-range stressor. But being fired from a job can affect two people quite differently. One person may love the job and badly need the money it provides. Another person might hate the job and not need the money. Obviously two people will respond differently toe the job loss.

In my stress index I have assigned the usual "stressor ratings" to various stressors. But I have also added a "multiplier" that reflects your own perception of the stressor. The multiplier is on a one-to-ten scale, based on how much stress you felt from the stressor.

For example, if being fired from your job didn't bother you very much, you should multiply the "stressor rating" by just two or three. But if being fired devastated you, you should multiple by nine or 10.

This index applies only to stressors that Occurred within the past 24 months.

The Brain Longevity Stress Impact Index
Legend for Table:

A - Event
B - Stressor Rating
C - Personal Perception Multiplier (1-10)
D - Score

A B C D

Death of your child 100 -- --
Death of your spouse 99 -- --
Life-threatening illness 95 -- --
Prison term 80 -- --
Divorce 78 -- --
Marital separation 68 -- --
Death of a parent or sibling 68 -- --
Fired from your job 65 -- --
Pregnancy 60 -- --
Hospitalization for
serious illness 58 -- --
Marriage 57 -- --
Foreclosure on a mortgage 57 -- --
Serious illness in the family 55 -- --
Birth of a child 50 -- --
Demotion at work 50 -- --
Lawsuit against you 50 -- --
Retirement 49 -- --
Sexual problems 45 -- --
Laid off from work 43 -- --
Problems with boss 40 -- --
Major business change 40 -- --
Major change in finances 39 -- --
Move to new town 38 -- --
Death of a close friend 38 -- --
Change of career 38 -- --
Change in frequency of
arguments with spouse 35 -- --
Change in sleep habits 31 -- --
Problems with co-workers 30 -- --
Assuming a mortgage of over
25 percent of net earnings 29 -- --
Birth of first grandchild 28 -- --
Children leaving home 27 -- --
Problems with extended family 25 -- --
Significant life style change 24 -- --
Illness of more than
one week duration 23 -- --
Promotion at work 23 -- --
Change in political or
religious beliefs 20 -- --
Assuming a mortgage of over
20 percent of net earnings 18 -- --
Change in social life 17 -- --
Change in diet 15 -- --
Vacation 10 -- --
Minor legal problem 10 -- --
If the sum of your multiplied scores (your total score) is less than 500, you are leading a relatively stress-free life. If it is 500 to 1,000, you have a low-stress life. If it is 1,000 to 2,000, you have a life of moderate stress and should work hard to minimize your response to your stressors. If your score is 2,000 to 3,000, you have a high-stress life, one that is almost certainly creating short-term cognitive dysfunction and that may eventually contribute to age-associated cognitive decline. If your score is higher than 3,000, you are in the danger zone, your stress levels are far too high and are a serious threat to your physical health, emotional well-being, cognitive function and brain longevity.

If you had a high total score on the Stress Impact Index, it means that you are habitually experiencing the "stress response." It is the stress response that physically endangers you.

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Excerpt from Brain Longevity by Dharma Singh Khalsa, M.D.

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