A little bit of stress can go a long way, motivating us to attain our goals and meet daily challenges. But poorly managed chronic stress and persistently high levels of cortisol, on the other hand, can impair memory function. Professor Sabina Brennan explains
1 Feeling forgetful?
Absent-mindedness is a common sign of stress. Stress interferes with our ability to learn and can affect our ability to remember to do things in the future, like taking regular medication or meeting a friend for lunch.
Our concentration and sleep can also be impacted by stress. Sleep disturbance and impaired concentration can then in turn impact negatively on our memory function.
2 All work and no play?
If stress is prolonged or chronic it can trick us into narrowing focus to the extent that we fail to set aside time for physical exercise or other leisure activities like music, art or reading.
3 Lost your sense of humour?
Stress can steal our sense of humour robbing us of our ability to see the funny side of life.
Laughter is the ultimate stress-buster, and humour helps us to cope with the unthinkable. Laughter actually reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Stressed individuals with a strong sense of humour become less depressed and anxious than stressed individuals with a less well-developed sense of humour.
4 Unhealthy eating habits?
Stress can lead to over-eating and unhealthy food choices. In the short term, stress can supress appetite, but in the longer term, if stress becomes chronic and is left unmanaged, cortisol can increase our appetite and spike our motivation to eat.
5 Feeling lonely?
When stress overwhelms us it is very tempting to shut others out of our lives because we need time alone to think.
We might also avoid others in order not to inflict our crankiness or irritability on them. The effort required to be with friends and family can feel like an added stressor and so we end up isolating ourselves at the very time that we should be seeking social support.
Isolating ourselves in this way can actually make things worse and have profound effects on our physical, mental and brain health.
6 Not sleeping or sleeping fitfully?
Stress can make it difficult to fall asleep and to stay asleep. When our body is in balance cortisol is secreted into our blood in a predictable 24-hour rhythm. Our natural body clock sees a peak in cortisol in the early morning that helps us to get out of bed. Cortisol levels decline slowly over the course of the day, reaching a maximum low around bed-time, rising again in the early night-time hours, slowly preparing for the morning to ensure that we have lots of energy to face the day. Chronic stress can interfere with the production of cortisol so that we might make too much at night preventing us from sleeping and nothing in the morning when we need that spur to get out of bed.
7 Be active
Exercise and physical activity reduce stress and release endorphins that make us feel good. Physical activity has direct benefits on brain structure and function. Exercise also improves heart and mental health, thereby reducing levels of depression and anxiety.
Making time for daily exercise is a great way to manage stress and is an effective way to improve mental alertness, concentration and overall cognitive function. Physical activity can also improve sleep, which can suffer during times of stress.
Spending most of the day sitting without moving can increase anxiety levels so make sure you make time to move around during the day - even five minutes of aerobic exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects.
8 Be present
We've all walked into a room to get something, then drawn a complete blank - what was it you went in there to do? When we are stressed it can be difficult to keep focused on the task at hand.
Being present and focused on doing what we are doing while we are doing it is a natural antidote to stress-induced absentmindedness.
Being 'in the moment' also helps us to stay away from negative thoughts or memories that can cause anxiety, stress and depression.
Rooting awareness in the body, such as feeling the soles of your feet while walking, or focusing on breathing in and out can tie you closer to the present moment.
9 Be positive
Negative thinking can be both a source and a consequence of stress and is a common symptom of anxiety.
Practicing positive thinking not only helps reduce stress but may also benefit our general health. Try writing out your negative thoughts. The simple act of putting them on paper may release your brain from having to remember them.
10 Be excited
Stress is a natural part of living. It keeps us motivated and allows us to adapt to change and to become more resilient.
Life would be boring and static without challenge, uncertainty and novelty - what would life be like if we didn't go on that first date, attend that job interview, or make that speech?
If we manage our stress and stressors well by preparing properly and seeking support when we need it, stressful events can be an opportunity for personal growth and achievement.
We still feel the fear and often want to flee but when we come out the other side we reap the rewards, we feel invigorated, alive, proud - we can also look back on and learn from the experience.
A small shift in perspective from fear to excitement can make a huge difference. So next time you get that wobbly feeling in your gut try naming it excitement rather than stress, the feelings are almost identical. Choose to take control of this feeling and remember courage grows out of fear.
11 Be connected
People with more social ties live longer, have better health, are less depressed, and less likely to develop cognitive impairment in later life.
Loneliness is, quite literally, a killer. Resist the temptation to withdraw when stressed. Seek support from friends, family and health professionals if necessary.
12 Be balanced
Our body likes regularity and needs internal balance to maintain our health. Stress can disrupt this balance in a way that can have serious consequences for our health. Eat and exercise regularly. Go to bed at a regular time each day and allow your body time to rest and recuperate after stressful events.
Set boundaries to ensure that you have a good balance between work and the rest of your life. Switch off email notifications and only check emails at pre-determined times. If you can, treat work as a place not a thing. Make time for hobbies, socialising and for relaxing.
13 Be realistic
Be realistic about what you and those around you can achieve. Recognise when good enough is better than perfect.
14 Be practical
We all know what it is like to run around the house first thing in the morning frantically searching for our keys - it's just another stressor on top of a long list of stressors that you can do without when you are already running late.
Simple things like making a single place for all of the important things in your life can help reduce stress. Create a place for your keys, wallet, swipe card, driving licence etc. and be absolutely disciplined about always putting them in that place when you come home. No more mad panics in the morning.
Identify and avoid people who feed your stress. Keep a diary to identify your own personal stress triggers.
Finally my favourite stress-buster is smiling - it's free and it boosts brain health. It gives birth to new brain cells and encourages changes in areas of the brain associated with learning and memory. It makes your brain more flexible, more resilient and better able to cope when challenged by stress, injury or disease.
Smiling releases hormones that make you feel good, it lowers blood pressure, boosts immune function and protects against stress, depression and anxiety.
Start and end your day with a smile. Smile at least five times a day, even or especially if you don't feel like it. The simple act of smiling sends messages to your brain that can make you happy even if you are not. It's contagious and can lead to laughter. Spread the happiness and the health benefits.
* Professor Sabina Brennan is a psychologist who works with the Institute of Neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin. To take the stress out of contraception visit yourperfectmatch.ie
Health & Wellbeing
The old Latin sayings 'solvitur ambulando' ('it is solved by walking') and mens sana in corpore sano ('a sound mind in a sound body') refer to the connection between physical activity and mental well-being - that link between the body and the mind.