Too much stress is bad for your brain. Stress normally comes and goes and like the tides, fears and anxieties subside shortly after their onset. But what happens when they don’t? Neuroscience points to 4 things:
- Chronic stress produces sustained high levels of cortisol in your brain.
- Your hippocampus shrinks as a result.
- Your brain is unable to produce new neurons.
- Your memory starts to worsen and you can’t concentrate as well.
None of this is a good thing!
Here is an idea that may help keep your stress at a healthy level. Cut someone else some “slack”! Many of us in our hurried, harried world are too quick to criticise and find fault with others. Like most thinking patterns this is born of habits of mind. Pay attention to your habits. Pay attention to your thinking. This is called meta- cognition (thinking about your thinking). I was stunned to read recently that 50% of the population never engages in meta- cognition. Is it any wonder we’re stressed?! If you are constantly critical of co-workers, your spouse, the kids, bad drivers, or strangers…guess what…you teach yourself to be critical of you! Stress is the result.
See if you can catch a glimpse of yourself in this letter. It has been reprinted for many decades in newspapers and publications all around the world. Oddly enough even in college student newspapers.
(adapted and updated a bit):
“Listen, son, I’m saying this as you lie asleep, one hand crumpled under your cheek. I’ve stolen in your room alone. A few minutes ago, as I sat reading my paper, a stifling wave of remorse swept over me. I had been cross with you. I scolded you as you were dressing for school because you only dabbed your face with a towel. I chewed on you for not cleaning your shoes. I spoke angrily when you threw some things on the floor. I found fault at breakfast too. You spilled things, gulped your food, put your elbows on the table and put too much butter on your toast. As I left for work you waved and called, “Good-bye, Daddy!” and I told you to straighten your shoulders.
The same thing happened in the afternoon. As I came up the road I saw you, down on your knees playing marbles. There were holes in your socks. I humiliated you in front of your friends by marching you ahead of me to the house. Socks were expensive – “If you had to buy them, you’d be more careful.” Imagine that from a father!
Do you remember, later, when I was reading my paper, how you came in – a bit timidly? I impatiently asked you, “What do you want?” You didn’t say a thing. You threw your arms around my neck and kissed me. And you held me with an affection that God has set in your heart and which even neglect hasn’t withered. Then you were gone, pattering upstairs to bed.
It was shortly after that I felt the guilt and sickening fear. I’ve gotten into the habit of finding fault, regimenting, rebuking. This is my reward to you for being a child! It wasn’t that I didn’t love you; it’s that I expected too much of a little boy. I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years. But there is so much in you that is good and fine and true – like your enormous heart, which showed itself in your coming to kiss me goodnight in spite of everything.
Nothing else matters tonight, son. I’m here kneeling by your bed, ashamed. You wouldn’t understand any of this if I told you about it. But tomorrow I’ll be a real daddy. I’ll be your chum, suffer when you suffer, and laugh when you laugh. I’ll bite my tongue when impatient words come. I’ll keep saying, “He’s nothing but a little boy – a little boy!”
I’m afraid I visualised you as a man. But looking at you now, crumpled and weary in your bed, I see you’re only a little boy. Yesterday you were in your mother’s arms. I’ve asked too much, too much.”
I think most of us ask too much – of others and ourselves. Most people I know up close need a break. The funny thing is…when you give someone a break…someone else gets a break…YOU! The best way to lower your own stress is to lower someone else’s. When you make a positive and sustained effort to praise more and criticise less, you have developed one of the most powerful and healthy habits of mind. This is good for your brain!