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6 Effects Of Chronic Stress On Our Brain and How To Manage Them

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So many of us have dynamic lives with a huge range of stressors impacting us daily. We all know that stress impacts us negatively, some experiencing more negative impacts than others. I was reading this article by Deane Alban which explores the impacts chronic stress can have on our brains, and it is quite startling.

Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol and affects many brain functions, putting you at risk for many mood disorders and other mental issues.

Chronic stress, the kind most of us face every day, can in fact be very harmful.

90% of doctor visits are for stress-related health complaints.

Chronic stress can make you more vulnerable to everything from diseases to the common cold.

The non-stop elevation of stress hormones not only makes your body sick, it negatively impacts your brain as well.

The Dangers of Chronic Stress and Cortisol

There are two main kinds of stress — acute stress and chronic stress — and, despite what you might think, not all stress is bad for you.

Acute stress is the reaction to an immediate threat, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response.

Once the threat has passed, your levels of stress hormones return to normal with no long-lasting effects.

Some degree of acute stress is even considered desirable as it primes your brain for peak performance.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine are stress hormones produced on an as-needed basis in moments of extreme excitement.

They help you think and move fast in an emergency.

In the right situation, they can save your life.

They don’t linger in the body, dissipating as quickly as they were created.

Cortisol, on the other hand, streams through your system all day long, and this is what can make it so dangerous.

Excess cortisol leads to a host of physical health problems including weight gain, osteoporosis, digestive problems, hormone imbalances, heart disease, and diabetes. 

Chronic stress takes a toll on adrenal glands, leaving you feeling “wired but tired”.

Cortisol also takes an equally high toll on your brain.

The Effects Of Chronic Stress On Your Brain

Some of these brain-related stress symptoms will be obvious to you, like memory loss, brain fog, anxiety and worry.

But most of these effects of stress on your brain are behind the scenes.

When stress becomes chronic, it changes your brains function and even its structure down to the level of your DNA.

You don’t notice they’re happening but you will notice the side effects…. Eventually.

So here are 6 ways chronic stress impacts your brain health and mental well-being along with some simple steps you can take to counteract the damage.

1)   Chronic stress makes you forgetful and emotional

Memory problems may be one of the first signs of stress that you will notice.

Misplaced keys and forgotten appointments have you scrambling, further adding to your stress.

If you find all the stress is making you more emotional too, there is a physiological reason for this. Studies show that when you’re stressed, electrical signals in the brain associated with factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotions strengthen.

2)   Stress creates a vicious cycle of fear and anxiety

Stress builds up an area of your brain called the amygdala. This is your brain’s fear centre.

Stress increases the size, activity level and number of neural connections in this part of your brain. This makes you more fearful, causing a vicious cycle of even more fear and stress.

3)   Stress halts the production of new brain cells.

Every day you lose brain cells, but every day you have the opportunity to create new ones. Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is a protein that’s integral in keeping existing brain cells healthy and stimulating new brain cell formation . It can be thought of as fertiliser for the brain. BDNF can offset the negative effects of stress on the brain. But cortisol halts the production of BDFN resulting in fewer new brain cells being formed.

4)   Stress can deplete critical brain chemicals causing depression

Your brain cells communicate via chemicals called neurotransmitters. Chronic stress reduces levels of critical neurotransmitters, especially serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of either of these neurotransmitters can leave you depressed and more prone to addictions.

Serotonin it is called the happy molecule. It plays a large role in mood, learning and appetite. Women low in serotonin are prone to depression, anxiety and binge eating. Men, on the other hand, are more prone to alcoholism, ADHD, and impulse control disorders.

Dopamine is the motivation molecule. It is in charge of your pleasure-reward system. Too little dopamine can leave you unfocused, unmotivated, lethargic and depressed. People low in this brain chemical can often use caffeine, sugar, alcohol and illicit drugs to temporarily boost their dopamine levels.

Serotonin-based depression is accompanied by anxiety and irritability, while dopamine-based depression expresses itself as lethargy and lack of enjoyment in life.

5)   Stress can make you feel stupid.

Stress can cause your brain to seize up at the worst possible times - exams, job interviews and public speaking come to mind.

This is actually a survival mechanism.

If you’re faced with a life-and-death situation, instinct and training overwhelm rational thought and reasoning. This might keep you from being eaten by a tiger, but in modern life this is rarely helpful.

Stress impairs your memory and makes you bad at making decisions.

It negatively impacts every cognitive function.

6)   Chronic stress shrinks your brain.

Stress can measurably shrink your brain. Cortisol can kill, shrink and stop the generation of new neurones in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that stores memories.

The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over.

Stress also shrinks the prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory and control of impulsive behaviours.

On top of all that, chronic stress destroys your happiness and your peace of mind. It wears you down mentally and emotionally.

Some side effects of stress that impact your mental well-being include:

·        excessive worry and fear

·        anger and frustration

·        impatience with self and others

·        mood swings

·        suicidal thoughts

·        insomnia, nightmares and disturbing dreams

·        trouble concentrating or learning new information

·        racing thoughts

·        nervousness

·        forgetfulness and mental confusion

·        difficulty in making decisions

·        feeling overwhelmed

·        irritability and overreaction to petty annoyances

·        excessive defensiveness or suspicion

·        increased smoking, alcohol, drug use, gambling or impulse buying.

It’s no fun experiencing the stress related symptoms. And it’s no picnic for those around us either.

Check out this little video for more info:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuyPuH9ojCE

 

So here are 6 Simple Steps To Help A Chronically Stressed Brain

Minimising stress and protecting your brain against its effects is easier than you might think.

Here are 6 simple steps to stop stress in its tracks and overcome its harmful effects on your brain.

1)   Stop free radical damage by eating a diet high in antioxidant rich foods like fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate and green tea.

2)   Increase levels of brain boosting BDNF by getting daily physical exercise. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. Walking is excellent. So are exercises with strong-mind body orientations like yoga, tai chi and qi gong.

3)   Start a daily meditation or mindfulness practice. Meditation not only reduces stress, it is a proven way to keep your brain young by keeping telomeres long. Meditation is also the best tool for learning how to master your thoughts. Chronic stress does not come from events in your life as much as it comes from your thoughts – your automatic negative reactions and cognitive distortions – about these events.

4)   Try one of the many mind–body relaxation techniques such as self-hypnosis, biofeedback or autogenic training.

5)   Look into taking an adaptogenic herbal remedy. Adaptogens increase your resilience to stress while supporting overall health. They promote balance between feeling energetic and feeling calm. Examples of adaptogens include ginseng, holy basil, artic root and bacoba.

6)   Get plenty of sleep. It is during sleep that the brain consolidates memories, repairs itself and grows new brain cells.

Chronic stress may seem to be an unavoidable part of life, but these proactive steps will definitely reduce its wear and tear on your brain.

Chronic stress takes a high toll on our mental health. It affects your brain structure and function in very real ways. It hastens brain ageing, depletes beneficial brain chemicals, enlarges your brain sphere centre and holds the production of new brain cells. It increases your risk of psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases. And frustratingly it causes mental functioning to jam at the worst possible time, leaving you less able to cope with the stress of daily life. Fortunately, some lifestyle changes, managing your responses and increasing your resilience and mental toughness can help you stop the damaging effects of stress.

Want to know more techniques to manage your stress levels, and build your resilience and mental toughness, contact Michelle on 0412047590 or via email michelle@bakjacconsulting.com

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.

 

5 Opportunities to Create A Culture Of Wellbeing

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I’m sure it is no surprise to many of us that it’s tough out there. Many of us are dealing with high levels of stress both personally and professionally. Many Australians are reporting that they are working long hours, have excessive workloads, not enough support in their workplace, feel insecure in their job and feel ill equipped to deal with change and challenges.

Statistics are indicating that at any given time, 20% of us are experiencing a mental health issue. Each year 1 in 5 of us take time off from the workplace due to issues with mental health and this figure is more than twice as high (46 per cent) if you're someone who considers your workplace mentally unhealthy.

Interestingly, a recent study showed that nearly half of leaders in the workplace don’t believe their workers are experiencing any mental health issues.

It does not appear to be rocket science to comprehend that both employers and employees benefit when a workplace prioritises mental health and wellbeing. To put it bluntly, people do their best work when they are in a positive frame of mind.

 

Creating a workplace culture where wellbeing is front of mind for both leaders and employees can be a dauting prospect. The phrase “this is the way we’ve always done it” can be a term heard a lot when it comes to workplace wellbeing.

 

But when workplaces start to work collaboratively to consider workplace tasks, teams, strengths and positive changes, great outcomes can occur.

 

One of the first questions to ask is WWW (What’s Working Well)? What is the organisation already doing which is creating great outcomes for staff? You can check in with an organisation and staff to assess how your workplace thinks and acts when it comes to wellbeing and mental health.

Then… what is the next step? An organisation does not necessarily have to make big changes to make a big impact.

 

A good first step is to recognise some of the issues that can impact wellbeing and mental health such as:

  • Working long hours for long periods of time

  • Heavy workloads

  • Unrealistic deadlines

  • Insufficient support

  • Unclear role definitions and measures of success

  • Lack of recognition at work

  • Toxic workplaces where bullying or discrimination is occurring.

  • Lack of personal wellbeing and resilience strategies.

 

Organisations need to keep in mind that there should be a focus on maximising wellbeing for all staff, not only those that are languishing or have poor mental health, but also keeping those staff who are already flourishing, consistently flourishing.

So, what are the opportunities for an organisation to maximise wellbeing?

1)   Be flexible.

Setting up an environment where there is supportive leadership and where managers are active in managing workloads and pressures is an excellent first step. Flexibility in this is essential. Allowing people flexibility is great for personal wellbeing.

This could be working from home once every couple of weeks, or having flexible start and finish times to fit in other lifestyle needs and balance.

Helping people manage their workload is also about listening to employees and understanding common triggers for stress.

Leaders need to recognise there are ways they can manage. There are ways to assist people reduce stress: be cautious with heavy workloads, set realistic deadlines, manage uncertainty.

2)   Create a (psychologically) safe culture

It is important for leaders to be aware of staff wellbeing all the time, not just when people are unwell.

 

This understanding is correlated to the quality of the relationship’s leaders have with their staff. This means checking in with staff and asking about and reviewing their wellbeing when they are well, not just when they are unwell.

Having an open channel of positive communication, treating people with respect, diversity and inclusion, having opportunities for team connectedness and for relationships, and celebrating wins and achievements all go into developing supportive and constructive workplace culture.

3)   Prioritise support and communication daily

Creating a mentally healthy workplace requires more than a resilience training session here and there.

It's a long-term commitment that involves creating a space where employees feel continually safe and supported, and where mental health is openly spoken about.

If someone doesn't feel psychologically safe to come out and talk about their experiences, they're not going to.

An organisation can have all this great training, but unless employees feel safe and know that they won't be excluded, treated differently, or lose their job — they won't feel comfortable or capable of being open.

4)   Focus on “wellness that works”

Regular catch-ups between leaders and staff, support and training programs, and return-to-work programs can all go a long way in ensuring mental health is a workplace priority.

It also creates a place where staff can feel safe and comfortable and supported.

An organisation can focus on a range of programs to support staff including:

  • Physical activity programs

  • Coaching and mentoring programs

  • Mental health education

  • Resilience and Mental Toughness training

  • Wellbeing checks

  • Encouraging employee involvement

However sometimes simply a great catch up between leaders and their staff conducted on a regular basis are just as advantageous.

5)   Just listen

Sometimes just listening to the needs of your staff can be a major opportunity to maximise wellbeing.

This is not about what “perks” they need – free food, bean bags in the lunch room etc. This is about really listening to the concerns your staff are vocalising and work with them to derive proactive solutions to these issues.

 

Want to know more about developing a wellbeing strategy for your organisation? Contact Michelle on 0412047590 or via email michelle@bakjacconsulting.com

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.

 

8 Signs An Employee Has Mental Toughness

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We are living in a world of work where “average” is no longer enough.

We need exceptional.

We need employee’s that are dependable, hardworking and proactive and are not afraid to take a risk. In work place environments we are now expecting more and more from employees. They need to look past their job descriptions and really consider an opportunity to add real value to their role. They need to find their purpose embedded within their role and take their organisation with them as they explore new found opportunities within change.

These are the employees that display Mental Toughness.

Mental Toughness is more than resilience alone. Individuals need not only to be able to bounce back after adversity strikes, they need to be able to be exposed to change and challenges and demonstrate their ability to thrive irrespective of the prevailing circumstances.

If you want to spot that employee who has Mental Toughness, here are 8 signs to look out for:

1. They think beyond their job descriptions.

An employee needs to be able to think on their feet and be agile in response to challenges and face these head on. Irrespective of their job description, a mentally tough employee will simply consider what needs to be done – and then do it. They don’t wait to be asked or told. They just do.

2. They manage their personal stress

Have you ever had an employee who is a “little black rain cloud”? They come into work at 9:05am and by lunch time they have infected everybody with their own little black rain cloud and then you have a whole bunch of little black rain clouds.

A mentally tough individual manages their own personal stress levels and in fact has an empowering effect on others. They tend to keep others calm by demonstrating an opportunity to manage their anxiety levels as they “breathe through it”.

3. They volunteer for tasks.

Putting their hands up for new tasks and new challenges is part of their routine. They take any opportunity to learn a new task, a new skill, a new technique. They recognise that they may not always get it the first time. But they are willing to keep trying. They add the word “yet” to their learning curve. “I haven’t got it….yet”

4. They praise tall poppies.

Rather than cut tall poppies down, this employee wants to build them up and fertilise them.

In a recent study, employees asked what they would rather have when they beat their production quota. They had three choices: an extra $20 in their pay that week, a pizza voucher, or their boss thanking them personally on the shop floor. If you guessed the third choice – you were right.

Praise from a boss is great, but praise from a peer feels even better, especially if that person is a confident member of the team whom we look up to.

5. They do not accept the status quo.

They do not adhere to the policy – “this is the way we’ve always done it”. They question the status quo and want to know how they can always improve not only their own performance, but the performance of the whole team. They welcome feedback and see it as information on how they can improve, rather than interpret it as criticism.

6. They ask hard questions. 

Many employees are cautious to speak up especially in front of others. Mentally tough employees will often ask the questions that others are afraid to ask and sometimes will even ask questions they already know the answers to, simply to allow other people to hear the answer.

They often have this innate sense for the concerns of those around them and will step up to the plate to ask the questions or raise the issues that everyone else is thinking or is worried about so that they can be addressed. They see the “elephant in the room” and are not afraid to point at them.

7. They possess self-belief.

This employee is quietly confident. They are not the arrogant person standing up singing their own praises. They don’t necessarily need praise from an external source, as they have an “internal locus of control”. They recognise when they have done a good job and are able to revel in their personal self-congratulations. They don’t always need a witness to clap their hands. Don’t let this negate the fact that they enjoy being told they have done an exceptional job. But they don’t need the praise to keep them going. They are more self-motivated than that.

8. They set themselves goals

Some employees are easily distracted and lose focus on what they are trying to achieve. Any excuse -  from an email, to a phone call to scrolling through Facebook will distract them from their workplace purpose. A mentally tough employee builds routine around daily goals and outcomes and commits themselves to have stickability to those goals.

They will do what it takes to hit their targets and objectives and train themselves to be focused. They have a daily “to do” list and are clear about what they want to achieve on any given day.

 

How many were you able to tick off in your team?

 

Want some assistance developing the mental toughness of your employees and / or team? Contact Michelle on 0412047590 or via michelle@bakjacconsulting, or check here to review Bakjac Consulting’s website for more information.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.

7 Opportunities To Build Your Self-Acceptance

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Often, we have to reflect on whether we like and accept ourselves for who we are. We have to ask: “Do I accept myself?”

As it turns out, self-acceptance is not an automatic or default state. Many of us have trouble accepting ourselves exactly as we are. It may not be so hard to accept the good parts of ourselves, but what about the rest? Surely, we shouldn’t accept our flaws and failures?

But, in fact, that’s exactly what we need to do.

If we are going to look at our opportunity to develop our resilience, mental toughness and wellbeing, then we first need to accept who we are.

I recently came across this great article that gives some great strategies to develop our self-acceptance.

Self-acceptance is exactly what its name suggests: the state of complete acceptance of oneself. True self-acceptance is embracing who you are, without any qualifications, conditions, or exceptions (Seltzer, 2008).

 “[Self-acceptance is] an individual’s acceptance of all of his/her attributes, positive or negative.” Morgado 2014

This definition emphasizes the importance of accepting all facets of the self. It’s not enough to simply embrace the good, valuable, or positive about yourself; to embody true self-acceptance, you must also embrace the less desirable, the negative, and the ugly parts of yourself.

If you’re thinking that accepting all the negative aspects of yourself sounds difficult—you’re not wrong! It’s not easy to accept the things that we desperately want to change about ourselves; however—counterintuitively—it is only by truly accepting ourselves that we can even begin the process of meaningful self-improvement.

Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Esteem

Although self-acceptance is closely related to other “self” concepts, t is a distinct construct.

Its close cousin, self-esteem, is also centred on your relationship to yourself, but they differ in an important way. Self-esteem refers to how you feel about yourself—whether you feel you are generally good, worthwhile, and valuable—while self-acceptance is simply acknowledging and accepting that you are who you are.

As Seltzer (2008) puts it:

“Whereas self-esteem refers specifically to how valuable, or worthwhile, we see ourselves, self-acceptance alludes to a far more global affirmation of self. When we’re self-accepting, we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem-able’ parts.”

Full self-acceptance can lay the foundations for positive self-esteem and the two frequently go hand-in-hand, but they concern two different aspects of how we think and feel about ourselves.

Using Self-Acceptance

What is important to be aware of is that a lack of self-acceptance is related to lower levels of wellbeing, and perhaps even mental illness (Vasile, 2013).

If low self-acceptance causes (or results from) mental illness and low levels of well-being, it stands to reason that higher self-acceptance can act as a protective factor or a buffer against these negative experiences.

Self-Acceptance in Practice

Now that we know what self-acceptance is and how it can benefit us, we can move on to another important question: What does self-acceptance look like? How do we know when we have “reached” self-acceptance?

Marquita Herald (2015) from the Emotionally Resilient Living website puts it this way:

“Can you look in the mirror and truly accept the unique, wonderful work-in-progress person staring back at you?”

You will know that you have achieved your goal of self-acceptance when you can look at yourself in the mirror and accept every last bit of what makes you who you are, and when you no longer try to mitigate, ignore, or explain away any perceived faults or flaws—physical or otherwise.

Techniques you can implement to enhance your self-acceptance:

1.   Practice relaxed awareness. What is relaxed awareness? As opposed to constant distraction, or concentrated focus, relaxed awareness is a soft consciousness of our thoughts, feelings, pain, self-rating, and judgment, etc. It’s an awareness of our existence, and the stream of phenomena that is occurring at this moment, including thoughts and emotions and outside stimuli. To practice: close your eyes for a minute, and instead of pushing thoughts away or trying to focus on your breath, just softly notice your thoughts and feelings and body. You might see negative thoughts or emotions — that’s OK. Just notice them, watch them. Don’t try to turn them into positive thoughts or push them away. You can do this practice for 5 minutes a day, or up to 30 minutes if you find it useful.

2.   Welcome what you notice. When you practice relaxed awareness, you’ll notice things — negative thoughts, fears, happy thoughts, self-judgments, etc. We tend to want to stop the negative thoughts and feelings, but this is just a suppression, an avoidance, a negating of the negative. Instead, welcome these phenomena, invite them in for a cup of tea, give them a hug. They are a part of your life, and they are OK. If you feel bad about how you’ve been doing with exercise, that’s OK. Hug the bad feeling, comfort it, let it hang around for a while. They are not bad but are opportunities to learn things about ourselves. When we run from these “bad” feelings, we create more pain. Instead, see the good in them, and find the opportunity. Be OK with them.

3.   Let go of rating yourself. Another thing you’ll notice, once you start to pay attention, is self-rating. We rate ourselves compared to others, or rate ourselves as “good” or “bad” at different things, or rate ourselves as flabby or too skinny or ugly. This is not a very useful activity. That doesn’t mean to let it go, but just to notice it, and see what results from it. After realizing that self-rating repeatedly causes you pain, you’ll be happy to let it go, in time.

4.   Gratitude sessions. Wake up in the morning and think about what you’re grateful for. Include things about yourself. If you failed at something, what about that failure are you grateful for? If you aren’t perfect, what about your imperfection can you be grateful for? Feel free to journal about these things each day, or once a week if that helps.

5.   Compassion & forgiveness for yourself. As you notice judgments and self-rating, see if you can turn them into forgiveness and compassion. If you judge yourself for not doing well at something, or not being good enough at something, can you forgive yourself for this, just as you might forgive someone else? Can you learn to understand why you did it, and see that ultimately you don’t even need forgiveness? If we really seek to understand, we realize that we did the best we could, given our human-ness, environment, what we’ve learned and practiced, etc. And so we don’t need to forgive, but instead to understand, and seek to do things that might relieve the pain.

6.   Learn from all parts. We tend to try to see our successes as good, and the failures as bad, but what if we see that everything is something to learn from? Even the dark parts — they are parts of us, and we can find interesting and useful things in them too.

7.   Separate from your emotions. When you are feeling negative emotions, see them as a separate event, not a part of you, and watch them. Remove their power over you by thinking of them, not as commandments you must follow or believe in, but rather passing objects, like a leaf floating past you in the wind. The leaf doesn’t control you, and neither do negative emotions.

8.   Talk to someone.  We get so in our heads that it’s difficult to separate our thoughts and emotions, to see things clearly. Talking through these issues with another person — a friend, spouse, co-worker — can help you to understand yourself better. Use the talking technique together with one of the above techniques.

 

Want to know more about developing self-acceptance and your personal wellbeing? Contact Michelle to discuss personal coaching.

Michelle Bakjac is an experienced Psychologist, Organisational Consultant, Coach, Speaker and Facilitator. As Director of Bakjac Consulting, she is a credentialed Coach with the International Coach Federation (ICF) and a member of Mental Toughness Partners and an MTQ48 accredited Mental Toughness practitioner. Michelle assists individuals and organisations to develop their Mental Toughness to improve performance, leadership, behaviour and wellbeing.