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Chronic Stress and Anxiety can Damage The Brain Leading to Depression and Dementia

A new scientific review paper has warned that people need to find ways to reduce chronic stress and anxiety in their lives or they’re at risk of developing depression and even dementia in later life.

The review was led by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences and studied the areas of the brain that are effected by chronic anxiety, fear and stress in both animals and humans. The authors concluded that there is an ‘extensive overlap’ of the neuro-circuitry in the brain in all three conditions, which might explain the link between chronic stress and the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

The paper has been posted online in the journal ‘Current Opinion in Psychiatry’.

Everybody experiences fear and anxiety occasionally. It’s a normal part of life. We’ve all had moments of high pressure in our lives, such as before a job interview or an exam. But these moments should be temporary. When those acute emotional reactions become chronic, they can massively interfere with the activities of daily life such as work, school and relationships. Chronic stress is an uncontrolled state caused by the extended activation of the normal biological response to stress. This can wreak havoc on the immune, cardiovascular and metabolic systems, which leads to deterioration of the brain’s hippocampus – which is vital for spatial navigation and long term memory.

Dr. Linda Mah, lead author of the review said, “Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia.”

The review ended on an optimistic note by suggesting that stress induced damage to the hippocampus is not completely irreversible. Physical activity and anti-depressant treatment have both been found to increase neural regeneration. In the future, more work needs to be done to discover whether individuals could do more to reduce their stress and decrease their risk. Solutions might include exercise, mindfulness training and cognitive behavioural therapy.

With further development, this breakthrough in dementia research has the potential to be really exciting. The Alzheimer’s Society is the leading UK organisation in the fight against dementia. Each year they run a Dementia Awareness Week. Thousands of people across the UK take part in fundraising events annually. To date, the emphasis has been on campaigns to help support people who suffer from dementia. But following this new review, a campaign could be included for next year to raise awareness about what steps we can take to possibly prevent the condition altogether. We could be taking our first very real step towards a world where dementia no longer exists.

So how do you reduce stress and anxiety?

When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, try these strategies to help you cope:

  • Take a time-out. Get a massage, listen to music, practice yoga, meditate or learn relaxation techniques. Stepping back from the problem usually helps to clear your head.
  • Eat well-balanced meals. Don’t skip any meals and keep healthy, energy-boosting snacks on hand.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine, which can exacerbate anxiety and trigger panic attacks.
  • Get enough sleep. When you’re stressed, your body needs additional sleep and rest.
  • Exercise daily to help to feel good and maintain your health.
  • Take deep breaths. Inhale and exhale slowly.
  • Count to 10 slowly. Repeat, and count to 20 if necessary.
  • Do your best. Instead of aiming for perfection, which isn’t possible, be proud of however close you get.
  • Accept that you can’t control everything. Put your stress into perspective: Is it really as bad as you think?
  • Welcome humour. A good laugh goes a long way.
  • Have a positive attitude. Make an effort to replace your negative thoughts with positive ones.
  • Get involved. Volunteer or find another way to be active in your community, as it will create a support network for you and give you a break from everyday stress.
  • Learn what triggers your anxiety. Is it work, family, school, or something else you can identify? Write in a journal when you’re feeling stressed or anxious and look for a pattern.
  • Talk to someone. Tell friends and family you’re feeling overwhelmed, and let them know how they can help you. Talk to a physician or therapist for professional help.

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