Tips help cope with stress, turn it to your advantage

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"Impossible situations can become possible miracles." - Robert H. Schuller

Stress can cause headaches, body aches, fatigue, irritability, racing heart and many more symptoms that can be detrimental to our health.

We can all learn to better control our minds and emotions, and by doing so, we can, within limits, turn stress to our advantage.

However, facing adversity builds mental strength necessary to contend with future stress, somewhat like a vaccine can build immunity to fight future illness.

But what if your level of stress has outstripped your ability to cope with it? It might be time to ask for help.

Before asking for help, let's review some ways that you could begin to help yourself.

A feeling of control: People who feel this way are more resilient. They tend to look at stress as a challenge to conquer. This feeling can reduce the amount of the toxic stress hormone called cortisol.

If you continue to have high doses of cortisol it can, in time, shrink your hippocampus, your brain's memory center. Try and remember a time you were in control, and tap into this feeling.

The will to go on: Sticking one foot in front of the other, the sheer grit of "going on," is a key ingredient for those determined to find the positive among the terrible.

The sheer will to go on switches on the brain's left hemisphere - the reward-seeking set of brain circuits underlying goal-seeking - to override the brain's anxiety-prone right hemisphere.

Try this exercise. Lightly squeeze your right hand for 45 seconds, relax for 15 seconds, squeeze again for 45 seconds, relax for 15 seconds. This boosts activity in the left-front part of your brain, which increases your inclination to approach the future.

Self-awareness can build personal resilience in stressful situations. Exercising self-awareness can be a painful process, and rather than face it we often do things in excess - eating, drinking, working or even exercising.

How do we become self-aware and stay healthy? Make time to clear-mindedly assess your strengths and limitations. Taking time to self-reflect and gain perspective activates the brain's right frontal lobe, releasing noradrenaline, a powerful chemical that can build the brain's gray matter and give us the mental strength to solve new problems better.

The ability to depersonalize: People who can rethink stressful situations and depersonalize the chain of events are able to lower activity in the parts of the brain that produce fear and anger. Practice being aware of your emotions. Sometimes our emotions are not based on logical facts. Reinterpreting distress as something other than a personal attack is a powerful tool that redirects brain activity from the emotional centers in the amygdala to the brain's thinking and problem centers of the frontal lobes.

For more information about stress and how it affects brain health visit www.brainhealth.utdallas.edu.

Memory Matters offers individual support and caregiver support groups.

For more information call 843-842-6688 or visit www.memory-matters.org.

Karen Doughtie is assistant director of Memory Matters, serving Bluffton and Hilton Head. karen@memory-matters.org

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