Dr. Ian Robertson, co-director of the Global Brain Health Institute and T. Boone Pickens Distinguished Scientist at the Center for BrainHealth, has spent the last four decades delving into the brain science behind stress. His new book, The Stress Test, hits shelves in January and reveals how we can shape our brain’s response to pressure. Read on to see if stress can ever be a good thing for our brains.
What’s the most surprising benefit that stress has on our brains?
Science has shown that experiencing moderate adversity benefits brain health – both cognitively and psychologically. While we tend to want to limit negative events in our lives, the research is clear that moderate stress, properly handled, increases alertness which in turn helps brain circuits function more efficiently.
How does it work?
Stress triggers the neurotransmitter norepinephrine which, like many of the brain’s chemical messengers, has a “sweet spot” below and above which the brain underperforms. Moderate stress can push you up into your sweet spot of functioning because norepinephrine is a natural, self-made “drug” that strengthens brain connections and improves alertness and performance.
How can we leverage stress to benefit us?
Everyone can learn to better control their own mind and emotions, and by doing so, we can – within limits – turn stress to our advantage. One of my favorite quotes is “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” So, focus your attention and tune your emotions towards the positive to literally change the way your mind works. To reap the brain benefits of stress, you must approach stressful situations with a “challenge” rather than a “threat” mindset. Saying “I feel excited” as opposed to “I feel anxious” in the face of a stressful challenge actually makes you feel better because it switches on your brain’s challenge mindset which in turn helps ensure that you stay in the sweet spot of functioning.