It is common knowledge that stress can affect your body. Constant worries and pressures can lead to sleep loss, a weakened immune system, headaches, and an elevated blood pressure. However, it might come as a surprise that stress can affect your mental processes as well. Your body is built to handle short-term, day-to-day stress, but chronic stress can be an entirely different matter when it comes to your brain.

When you are under continual stress, your body’s fight-or-flight responses cause the release of adrenaline and other hormones. Over time, these hormones can take a toll on your brain. Your brain cells stress-age at an accelerated rate as your hormones weaken blood vessels, kill neurons, and shrink the hippocampus. The shrinking of the hippocampus can also put you at serious risk of developing dementia later in life. Stress is also linked to low levels of the enzyme telomerase. Without the proper levels of this enzyme, there’s nothing to keep rapid brain cell aging in check.

Chronic stress causes a declining mental capacity, and declining mental capacity causes even more stress. Without the proper precautions, your body can enter an ongoing cycle of health decline. You can prevent this from happening, however! Here are some helpful tips to counteract high levels of stress.

1. Dive into your stressors.

Before you can alleviate your stress, you must identify and address your stressors. From a knot in your stomach to a racing heart, observe how your body reacts to stress. Once you’ve given this some thought, you will begin to notice the circumstances that trigger such responses. Keep in mind that everyone is affected differently and what stresses you out might not even register to other people. Knowing what affects you the most is a big step towards taming the tensions in your life.

2. Get a move on.

One of the best ways to reduce stress is to exercise. Breaking a sweat cuts off the negative effects of stress by boosting BDNF (brain-derived neuropathic factor) levels. This important chemical stimulates cell growth, increases endorphins, eases muscle tension, and improves your ability to sleep. In short, the parts of the brain that are negatively affected by stress and decay in late adulthood are the same regions that benefit the most from exercise. The type of exercise is not important; just be sure to get your heart and blood pumping. Cardio and resistance training are the best exercises for keeping a healthy brain.

3. Turn off the lights.

Once you’ve worn yourself out with a healthy round of exercises, you should find it much easier to get a quality rest. A good night’s sleep greatly helps your brain function, increasing memory ability, mood, creativity, and problem-solving skills while decreasing your risk of dementia. Sleep acts like a reset button for your brain, effectively wiping away all of the toxins that are built up and could lead to Alzheimer’s disease later in life. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that adults should try to get seven to nine hours of sleep every night. This becomes easier to do if you stick to a regular schedule, avoid caffeine, and exercise regularly.

4. Set aside “you time.”

Meditation has been proven to improve the health and function of your brain. Setting aside 15-20 minutes twice per day to meditate helps you to counteract stress by building focus and observing problems rationally rather than emotionally. Meditation also increases grey matter in the hippocampus, increasing your brain’s ability to learn, retain information, and process information. There are many methods of meditation, including self-led, teacher-led, yoga, Tai Chi, and even just sitting quietly and breathing deeply.

5. Laugh more, fret less.

As crazy as it sounds, laughter really is the best medicine. Studies have shown that humor can actually help repair damage caused by cortisol, the most common stress hormone. One study conducted by Loma Linda University in California showed that simply watching a funny video reduced cortisol levels and boosted memory, sight recognition, and learning ability. Humor can also help lower blood pressure, increase blood flow, and improve your mood. Laugh more and fret less to improve your health and quality of life!

Life can be challenging at times, there’s no doubt about that. Stressing and worrying, however, do nothing to improve your situation! Take a moment to relax, breathe deeply, and allow yourself to process each situation logically rather than impulsively. Keeping a healthy brain will help you to address your stressors more effectively, while letting your brain decay will only make the stress worse. Follow these five tips and you may find yourself becoming better equipped to handle the pressures in your life.

Sources: Medical News Today, AARP Health, MedPage Today