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11 Stress Relievers For a Healthier Brain

Jan 19 2021
10 min read
Close-up of man sitting on couch leaning back with eyes closed.

Successful aging and maintaining a healthy, active brain depend on avoiding stress, anxiety, depression and addiction.

This article is adapted from 30 Days to a Better Brain, by Richard Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S., president of the Canyon Ranch Institute and a former Surgeon General of the United States.

The following strategies are ways Canyon Ranch works with our guests to reduce and relieve stress. You can explore each or all of them, or come up with your own. Any strategy that allows you to calm yourself, and that you can call upon whenever you are feeling stressed or anxious, will work. Many of them can help promote neurogenesis on their own, making them additionally beneficial.

Get Rid of the Word Stress

When people come to Canyon Ranch, one of the first things we teach them is to take the word stress out of their vocabulary and begin to name whatever it is that they are feeling. If you can get rid of the word stress and instead focus on naming the emotion or physical pain that underlies it, you will help yourself release the anxiety that accompanies it. We can’t always solve our problems immediately, but identifying them does help. Instead of saying, “I’m totally stressed out,” it is more reasonable to say any of the following that accurately identifies your current state: “I’m feeling sick in my gut.” “I’m feeling tight in my throat.” “I feel as if I’m going to cry.” “I’m hurt because of this situation at home.” “I’m overburdened with work.”

Start to Reframe

Reframing old ideas or habits can lead to substantial changes in your mood and behaviors. For example, we know that depression often stems from false thinking and negative self-talk; we convince ourselves of things that aren’t necessarily true. However, if you can focus on the things that make a difference to your personal happiness, instead of dwelling on the things that make you unhappy, you will become more resilient in the face of adversity, and greater resilience in turn will allow you to better handle stressful situations. One way to do this is to link experience to memory and try to remember things positively. This makes a huge difference in how you feel and how you will think about your memories. Learn how to accept what’s actually happening and choose to be optimistic, focusing on the lessons and the opportunities for growth instead of the problem.

Spend Time With Friends

People who are more socially engaged tend to stay more cognitively healthy. There are two reasons why this may be true. The first is that they’re getting more stimulation. They are people who are having conversations, who are thinking on their feet—and all of that stimulates the brain. Second, as long as the social connections are emotionally satisfying, then they enhance mood and decrease stress. Studies have also shown that people who are profoundly lonely produce excess cortisol. Surround yourself with positive, calm, resilient people, and you will learn to become one.

Go Out of Your Way to Relax

Make time to actively get rid of the stress and anxiety you create, and you’ll lower cortisol levels. One of the most popular ways to do this at Canyon Ranch is through massage. In a 2010 overview published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, seventeen individual studies showed that massage therapy is significantly associated with alleviating depressive symptoms, although we are still not sure how it actually helps.

Neurofeedback is another technique that can relax the brain so you can focus. A neurofeedback session feels like a comforting experience in a futuristic setting. Sensors are placed on your head in key spots to read the speed of brain waves. The ratio of speed and amplitude from front to back and side to side should ideally be in balance, and this technology allows you to practice techniques to achieve that. With the sensors in place, you are shown a soothing image, such as a sailboat, accompanied by sound. Therapists can see how your brain waves react to these images, and from there, you can learn how to control brain energy to achieve balance and improve attention and focus.

Go Outside

Another effective way for you to ease the stress response is by literally changing your view. Just sitting quietly outside for a few minutes can help. Nature is easy on the eyes and easy on the ears, and by linking yourself to its calmness, you can lower your anxiety. Take the time to notice what the shadows look like, what the green of the grass looks like or the different smells of the seasons. Nature is always changing, and by focusing your attention outward, outside yourself and into the world, you make space to engage other parts of the brain in new and profound ways that can help ease the burden of whatever it is you left behind.

Get Creative

Creativity not only reduces stress and anxiety, it generates neuroplasticity and helps to keep the brain robust. It can facilitate new neuronal connections because whenever you do something creative, you’re putting old information together in new and different ways. This way of thinking has been frequently attributed to the wisdom of aging, where we create new paradigms from information that is available. That’s why the aging brain and the creative brain are very similar ideas. What’s more, it doesn’t matter if you’re motivated to create a wonderful meal or a piece of music or just to play the guitar or to find a new way of doing something different in your life. Being creative can include writing a poem, working with clay, baking, drawing, beading, painting or simply looking at the world differently. All that is important is finding a good fit that combines your interests with your imagination.

Listen to Music

Music has the ability to alter mood dramatically and positively, so it only makes sense that it can have an impact on your brain. Music can calm the brain and allow it to succumb to sleep. Like dance, music offers a sensory experience that gives you a reprieve from your over-engaged mind. However, you have to choose music that truly resonates with you in order for it to alter your mood.

Keep a Journal

Writing has a huge impact on emotional states. One exercise that channels writing positively is creating a gratitude journal as a measurable way to quantify happiness. Gratitude is a powerful emotion that can shift your entire attitude toward life and can be mood enhancing. Martin Seligman, PhD, who is one of the pioneers in positive psychology, suggests that people can learn to recognize happiness by counting their blessings. Participants in his research were asked to write down five things they should be grateful for each day for five days. Other people feel comfortable releasing stress effectively by writing about it. You don’t have to share these entries with anyone else, although many people find that the act of sharing their writing is what releases the stress because they feel it removes the negative energy.

Try Something New

Novelty relates to the mental curiosity that is very much a part of the human condition and that we need in terms of creating brain growth. We all need to foster a little mental flexibility so we do not get stuck in a rut of doing things only one way. Trying new things allows us to create a different kind of mental stimulation and can help us break the cycle of stress that accompanies repetition. It’s not necessary just to do the things you are good at; it’s also critical to try new things in order to cultivate mental flexibility.

Find the Love

Love and stress are probably at opposite ends of a spectrum: The feeling of being loved and receiving love is the opposite of stress. Just as stress increases the production of cortisol, we know that being in the presence of love creates a more positive atmosphere within the brain that can trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin, the love hormone. Oxytocin is released when you feel safe and secure, when you are transmitting and receiving tenderness through eye gaze or touch, and during sex. It provides a wash of calmness over the brain and the body. Loving relationships alter the brain the most significantly.

Ask For Help

Just as you strive for companionship, it is often the best medicine to ask for help when you need it. This is especially true if you find yourself in a situation that makes you anxious or stressed. Medical professionals and therapists, as well as family and friends, can lend a hand in lightening your burden or providing assistance so that you can figure out the best course of action. Medications may help, and you should talk to your doctor about your specific mental health issues in order to craft a plan to treat these conditions.

A headshot of Chief of Health Innovations, Richard Carmona.

About the Expert

A headshot of Chief of Health Innovations, Richard Carmona.

Richard Carmona

MD, MPH, FACS, Chief of Health Innovation

From days of homelessness as a child, Dr. Richard Carmona worked his way up to serving as 17th U.S. Surgeon General (2002 – 2006). He’s a renowned integrative medicine physician, trauma surgeon, and global public health leader with military service and law enforcement experience. His long-standing leadership role and personal relationship with Canyon Ranch reflect a shared vision to promote healthy living.

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