The latest research on brain function and stress is pretty sobering. Stress is bad—really bad—for the brain.
Recent research shows that long-term exposure to stress can significantly harm the brain by shrinking brain cells, destroying neuronal pathways, and causing brain atrophy. Long-term stress is also associated with dementia.
In this article, we explain the physical mechanism by which stress undermines healthy brain function. We also discuss how you can make your brain more resilient through the practice of breath training and mindfulness.
The mechanisms behind stress’s negative impact on the brain are fairly well-understood.
When we perceive an extreme danger in our environment, the body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. Fight-or-flight causes the sympathetic nervous system to initiate a series of physical changes that prepare us for the danger: Heart rate and breath rate increase. Muscles tighten. Digestion ceases. Stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, are released into the bloodstream.
Although the fight-or-flight response can keep us alive, over a prolonged period, the stress of fight-or-flight is severely damaging to the body and brain.
Elevated blood pressure injures the cardiovascular system. Excessive production of cortisol damages the hippocampus, the region of the brain where new memories are formed, causing impairments in learning.
The good news is that our brains have a remarkable capacity to regenerate, even after years of stress. Further, we can protect our brains and bodies against the ravages of long-term stress.
Research shows that, throughout our lives, the brain is pliable. It is constantly being reshaped, for better or worse—a concept known as neuroplasticity. By regulating stress levels, exercising, and practicing breathing, and cultivating mindfulness, we reshape the brain in positive ways.
Stress reduction allows our brain to create new cells and pathways—a process called neurogenesis. The result is increased thickness and durability in the region of our brain that experiences stress, discomfort, and pain.
The practice of intentional breathing is one of the easiest ways to reduce stress and rebuild positive neural pathways in the brain.
If done properly, intentional breathing elicits a relaxation response in our nervous system, setting off a chain of positive physiological responses. As the parasympathetic nervous system kicks into gear, the following changes occur:
The result of these changes is not only physical relaxation but also mental clarity. From a deeply relaxed state, we experience better concentration and a sense of mental spaciousness that allows us to think creatively, cultivate patience, regulate emotions, elevate positive moods and feelings, and increase mental stamina.
Breathing training is the quickest and easiest way to elicit the relaxation response. If regularly practiced, breathing exercises have the capacity to reshape and strengthen your brain.
One example is the box breath. The box breath is well-designed for increasing brain power by what it can do for personal concentration and mental resilience. By holding your breathing, after inhale and after exhale, you are using those moments to increase awareness and allow for deeper levels of attentional focus. Here is how you practice the box breath:
To access our trove of guided breathing lessons, signup for the BreatheAware app and web-based platform.
Mindfulness—the practice of non-judgmentally remaining aware of your own thoughts and emotions as they unfold—is a powerful technique for keeping your brain healthy. Mindfulness training offers numerous benefits to the brain:
How much better would life be if we weren’t plagued by automatic negative thoughts? What if you perceived every situation from a slightly positive rather than a slightly negative angle?
Mindfulness is a tool that allows us to recognize negative thoughts as they arise, and replace them with more positive thoughts. This technique is the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which involves recognizing, challenging, and replacing negative thoughts and cognitive distortions.
A number of studies have already shown that emotional distress can be alleviated through mindfulness.
One recent study dug deeper and investigated the mechanisms by which mindfulness reduces emotional distress.
The researchers found that mindfulness helps with emotional distress in two important ways—by reducing stress and lessening negative cognitive bias (i.e., negative thoughts). Both traits improved symptoms of emotional distress.
One of the most promising aspects of mindfulness is the potential alleviating effects it has on depression and anxiety.
In one longitudinal study, researchers surveyed a group of 333 young adults over a period of two years. The questionnaires asked about levels of depression and anxiety, as well as traits connected to mindfulness training, such as acceptance of negative emotions, impulse control, and emotional regulation.
The researchers found that mindfulness traits—acceptance of negative emotions, impulse control, and emotional regulation—lessened depression, and, more marginally, reduced symptoms of anxiety.
One reason that mindfulness improves mood and alleviates depression is that it facilitates and deepens social connections.
A recent experimental study involving 94 adults showed that people who practiced mindfulness increased their feelings of social connection compared to those who didn’t practice mindfulness. A consequence of that increased social connection was a rise in positive emotions.
Each year, evidence of the extraordinary benefits of breathing and mindfulness practice on cognition and brain health continues to grow.
To learn more about training the brain through breathing and mindfulness—and to access dozens of guided lessons—download our app or try our website platform.