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‘Rewiring’ your brain is an effective way to combat stress: Some helpful tips

Life puts way too many demands on each of us, which can lead to overwhelming levels of stress. | stock.adobe.com

Life puts way too many demands on each of us, which can lead to overwhelming levels of stress. | stock.adobe.com

The key to staving off stress – whether you’ve had a computer meltdown at work or a life-altering panic at home – is to change your brain pathways, and that can be as simple as recognizing that April is Stress Awareness Month.

It’s a matter of near-constant awareness – boosting your ability to recognize your own feelings and thought processes, then slowing down those processes so you can make different choices, experts say.

It doesn’t require extra time – only a good night’s sleep.

“Research shows our brains are rewiring themselves every night as we go to sleep,” said Dr. David H. Baron, the medical director of YellowBrick, an Evanston-based mental-health services provider that’s published a blog reviewing apps aimed at helping people control stress.

“At night, the brain decides, ‘What’s important? I’ll reinforce that. The brain is making decisions about what’s going to stick – and pruning and re-wiring neurons all the while,” Baron said.

Practice makes perfect.

The more we cope with stress in healthy ways – exercising, eating a healthy diet, staying in contact with friends and allies – the stronger those brain connections become, said Fabiana Souza Araujo, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences.

It’s about increasing your resilience.

“We all will fall. It’s part of life. What makes the difference? How fast and how well you bounce back,” Araujo said.

One way to rewire your brain in a healthy direction is to use social media wisely.

Ask yourself: Does social media stress you out?

If so, it could be because social media can create personal and family pressures that are grounded in unreality, said Dr. Olu Ajilore, an associate professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s psychiatry department.

Dr. Olu Ajilore is an associate professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s psychiatry department. | Vibhu Sreevatsa Rangavasan Photo

Dr. Olu Ajilore is an associate professor in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s psychiatry department. | Vibhu Sreevatsa Rangavasan Photo

“Social media can give us a filtered version of reality that shows others doing well and having fun, [and that can] create competition to keep up with that image,” said Ajilore, who works with patients at UIC’s Center for Depression and Resilience.

So it’s important to do a reality check. How are you letting social media influence your emotions? Do others’ beachfront vacation photos make you angry and jealous or happy and contented?

One coping method: Take a social-media “fast,” Ajilore said. “Take a break for a couple weeks from Twitter or Instagram. Use that time to reconnect with people in real life, face-to-face.”

Or turn off the messaging function from your phone so that you see messages or notifications only on a desktop or laptop.

Another overlooked step is to ask for help.

“It doesn’t make the situation worse to speak honestly about how you’re feeling,” Baron said.

One stress-relieving tip from Felicia Houston, a licensed clinical professional counselor with UChicago Medicine at Ingalls Memorial in Harvey, is to take care of yourself – and, by extension, your brain. Dehydration and lack of sleep can contribute to feeling irritable, irrational and unfocused. | Provided

That might mean sitting down with your family and comparing lists of each person’s responsibilities, said Felicia Houston, a licensed clinical professional counselor with UChicago Medicine at Ingalls Memorial in Harvey, who leads stress-reduction workshops.

“Be honest and say, ‘I need some help. Which [responsibilities] can you take off of my plate?’” Houston said.

Other quick brain changers that Houston uses in her stress-reduction workshops, and which other experts recommend, include:

• Take 15 minutes to list your daily routine on a time wheel. Most people fill in a big portion of the wheel with the hours they spend working. What about time spent doing something that gives you joy and high energy? What about ‘me’ time?

• Take care of yourself – and, by extension, your brain. Dehydration and lack of sleep can contribute to feeling irritable, irrational and unfocused.

• Try something new. Research shows it helps minimize stress levels.

• Set realistic expectations – for others as well as for yourself. For people who like to keep ‘to do’ lists, stick with 10 items and see if that’s doable.

• Learn what you can and cannot control. You cannot control other people. You can control yourself.

• Get outside and get fresh air. If there’s a park nearby, swing on the swings or go down the slide.

• Keep a journal. Write in an app such as Evernote. Or color with crayons or markers. Adult coloring pages are available online and can be downloaded for print.

• Use apps to your benefit. Try searching the “Calm” app for stress relief by topic, such as for kids or for certain times of the day. Search online for recommendations for the best mental-health apps (https://outsider.ie/lifestyle/best-mental-health-apps/?).  The list includes Chicago-based SuperBetter, a game that lets you create an identity and choose a pre-loaded experience, design your own adventure, and complete quests – all aimed at helping you build psychological strength by achieving personal goals, taking committed action and experiencing positive emotions.

• Make time for opening and paying bills; scheduling and going to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments; and checking in on your own well-being in a conscious way.

• Keep a stress box at work and at home with your favorite go-to stress relievers – bubblegum (research shows it can relieve stress); small bites of chocolate, bags of soothing hot tea; or lavender oil and a diffuser to spread calming scents.

NOTE: A free workshop, “Stress Less, Enjoy More,” will take place at 6 p.m. April 17 at the South Holland Community Center, 501 E. 170th St., South Holland. To register, call 708-915-CARE (2273). For more information, call Behavioral Health Services of UChicago Medicine at Ingalls Memorial in Harvey, Illinois, at (708) 915-6411.

Sandra Guy is a local freelance writer.