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An attitude adjustment can help reduce stress and boost brain health: changing the way you think can protect you from severe or chronic stressors that may harm your body and brain.

Severe or prolonged stress has been linked to a long list of negative consequences for both the body and brain, yet much of this harm may be preventable. Since a large part of the stress response is tied to the thought patterns individuals adopt when faced with challenges, changing the way you think about stressful situations can help you deal with stress more effectively and reduce its negative effects.

The brain is especially vulnerable to chronic or repeated stress, whether from an external source or from internal tension. Studies have linked high levels of stress with greater risk for depression, anxiety, problems with memory and concentration, impaired communication among brain cells, and interference with the development of new neurons to replace older dying cells in the hippocampus, a key memory region in the brain. A study published May 2015 in The EMBO Journal suggests that increased risk for Alzheimer's disease (AD) associated with chronic or severe stress may be linked to stress-related changes in the brain that trigger higher production of toxic beta-amyloid proteins, a hallmark of Alzheimer's disease (AD).

"Much stress is self-inflicted through distorted thought patterns that, among other characteristics, focus on the negative aspects of situations, diminish our confidence in our ability to control events, and draw conclusions that are defeatist and unnecessarily self-critical," says Maurizio Fava, MD, Vice Chair of MGH's Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Division of Clinical Research at the MGH Research Institute. "Making an effort to challenge destructive thought patterns whenever they occur can help you lower your stress levels over time by shifting your thinking to a more balanced and rational assessment of stressful situations."

7 WAYS TO CHANGE THE FOCUS

Below are examples of strategies you can use to replace stress-inducing ways of thinking with more positive approaches to challenges:

1 Be flexible. Try to adapt, find new ways to respond, and change expectations in the face of challenges. Rigidly adhering to demands and expectations that are not of fundamental importance can generate unnecessary stress.

2 Be positive. Try to see negative events as temporary setbacks, challenges, or learning experiences. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of events, look for their positive aspects. Consider positive events as proof that good outcomes are likely in the future rather than as rare strokes of luck. Seeing negative events as normal can lead you to expect the worst during stressful situations.

3 Use encouraging self-talk.

Adopt an internal dialogue in which you encourage yourself and emphasize your strengths and past successes. Downplay words like "should" or "must" and avoid recriminations and self-talk that focuses on your fears and shortcomings. Having unrealistic expectations of yourself, criticizing yourself, and telling yourself you can't succeed are self-limiting and stressful.

4 Boost your sense of control.

Don't automatically give up when confronted by a stressor: Make an effort to examine your options and look for ways to change stressful situations.

5 Avoid all-or-nothing thinking.

Instead of viewing events in stark black or white--pass or fail--accept that life usually proceeds in shades of gray, and no one event will determine your worth or success. For example, socializing may become more stressful if you conclude you're a social failure because you forgot a guest's name while making introductions at last night's party.

6 Don't personalize. Wrongly assuming that events beyond your control involve you or that you are somehow responsible for them can increase your stress levels. Instead, cultivate a sense of perspective. Accept that you cannot control every situation, and absolve yourself of unwarranted blame. It may help to ask yourself how you would view a friend in the same situation.

7 Avoid catastrophizing. When you put the greatest possible negative "spin" on events before their outcome is determined, remind yourself that such anxiety-provoking thoughts are pointless because the situation is still in process. Instead, focus on dealing with the situation as it is now. Developing upsetting negative "what if" scenarios can result in high levels of stress. MMM

WHAT YOU CAN DO

When faced with a stressful event, a one-minute mind-body technique can be useful for helping you relax and interrupt stressful thought patterns. If stressful thoughts arise, push them gently aside.

* Belly breathing: Take slow, deep breaths that cause your abdomen to rise, and then exhale slowly. Focus on your breathing to the exclusion of all other thoughts.

* External focus: Fix your attention on something outside yourself--such as drifting clouds, tree limbs moving against the sky, music, or a flickering candle.

* Guided imagery: Close your eyes and imagine yourself in a peaceful setting. Use your imagination to mentally see, hear, feel and smell your surroundings.
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Publication:Mind, Mood & Memory
Date:Feb 1, 2016
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