As part of my class on brain fitness at the Lifelong Learning Institute the past several weeks, I asked interested participants in the class to fill out the fourteen item Perceived Stress Scale. It’s a well known questionnaire used to evaluate someone’s level of stress. Items on the scale ask questions about how often a person encounters things that he or she can’t cope with, and also about how able the person feels to cope with stressors.
I’m interested in stress because lots of research shows that stress has a negative effect on memory. Ever since the pioneering studies of Robert Sapolsky, we’ve know that stress can harm the brain. Other research has shown a negative relation between level of stress and how well people do on memory tests.
Individuals in my class last year at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Miami did the same questionnaire. When we looked at how stress was related to how well those people did on a memory test, we saw what others have found. There was an inverse relation between stress and memory. As stress went up, memory went down.
An important part of any brain fitness program is developing a stress management program. By that I mean you should spend some time in identifying what kind of stressors you have and figure out what to do about them.
Good ways of coping with stress include avoiding the things that you can avoid (that third cup of coffee, or that family member who always upsets you) and then having a systematic way of dealing with the ones you can’t avoid.
Schedule challenging tasks for the time of day when you’ll have the most energy for them. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the things you have to do, make a list and work through them one by one. If a new task just seems overwhelming, break it down into a series of smaller tasks and work through them one by one.
Exercise and meditation help your body cope with stress as well. Regular aerobic exercise helps people manage stress. Remember to talk to your doctor about what kind and how much exercise is safe for you to do.
Meditation is deceptively simple: just stop for a few minutes a couple of times a day and spend some time breathing. For many people, I think meditation is a simple and effective way of coping with stress. It’s effects are cumulative: do it a couple of times a day for a week, and you’ll gradually develop a more relaxed and focused mindset.