Cognitive Exercises: Decreasing Your Stress Could Be as Easy as Playing Brain Games!

By: Dr. Michael Lam, MD, MPH; Dr. Justin Lam, ABAAHP, FMNM


Enjoy the benefits of cognitive exercisesStress is ever-present in modern society. From the pressure people feel to meet deadlines, to the worry felt in dealing with freeway gridlock, to fears of terrorist attacks, stress is part of our daily lives. This stress impacts us in a variety of ways and can create adrenal fatigue. Finding a new way to cope effectively with stress could be a lifesaver. Some believe actively participating in cognitive exercises, or thinking, may be a way to do just that.

Improve Mental Health by Engaging in Cognitive Exercises

A study conducted by the National Institute of Health and Welfare, in Finland, showed a series of emailed exercises, focused on improving the subjects’ well-being and increasing their ability to cope with stress, made a significant difference. Results showed those who completed the email training experienced positive changes at both two month and two-year follow-ups. The researchers found subjects had lower levels of stress, more confidence in their futures, and increased feelings of gratitude.

The subjects were given email instruction regarding solution-focused therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and positive psychology. All designed to use cognitive exercises. Those who followed the instructions given showed the most improvement at two-year follow-up. Increased well-being and improved ability to deal with stress were the two most reported improvements.

Initially, 42,761 subjects started the study out of 73,054 people who signed up at first. Of these, 16,499 completed one follow-up. Those people who didn’t choose to do the emailed interventions were used as a control group.

Subjects who started the study were given the option of adding other interpersonal interventions, such as improving social relationships and resolving conflicts, learning how to stop smoking, learning how to lose weight, and increasing physical exercise.

A dropout rate of 84.1% to 88.3% occurred in both those who participated in the study and the control group. Males, those with less education, binge drinking, smoking every day, decreased physical exercise, and poor diets were factors in this dropout rate.

Women, better educated participants, younger subjects, those who were employed, and those in relationships tended to stay with the interventions. At the two-year follow-up researchers found most of the subjects did not follow the instructions as given. But those who did experienced greater improvement. Both groups, control and intervention, showed improvements at the end of the study, but those in the intervention group had greater improvement.

Some possible limitations of this study included the lack of good representation of the Finnish population, large dropout rate, lack of randomization, and lack of control for confounding factors that could have influenced stress levels. However, it is a good first step for evaluating technology use in mental health, especially in learning how to better deal with stress.

One of the authors of the study said the researchers were hopeful of these results being long-lasting because of the consistency of results across the measures used. Replication of this study, using more rigorous methods, would be needed to be certain of this.

Stress and Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS)

Stress can benefit from cognitive exercisesThis study gains importance when viewed in light of the relationship between stress and AFS symptoms. Feeling depressed, anxious, fatigued, fearful, with reduced concentration, and inability to remember are common indicators of adrenal fatigue. Interestingly, these are also commonly seen with increased stress. AFS occurs when the stress to the body becomes overbearing and weakens the adrenals and overwhelms other organs in the body. Stress is a major causative factor for AFS. It’s no surprise that AFS sufferers usually have a high degree of perceived or real stress.

Much of the time, the most-suggested way to handle these symptoms was said to be rest and learning to relax. This can be helpful to a certain degree. Antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications frequently would be given, also.
Unfortunately, these recommendations proved too often to be useless in reducing the symptoms presented by patients. Long-term compliance is a major problem, because most people living an active life have multiple commitments that are hard to abandon abruptly. More often than not, sufferers are seeking immediate solution, but disappointed, as clinical success is elusive. In fact, their condition often deteriorated due to the continued natural progression of AFS.

Benefits of cognitive exercise in AFS

Stress is not a new condition to the body. The mechanism our body has for dealing with stress is the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) Axis. Under excessive physical or emotional stress, the hypothalamus releases hormones that affect the pituitary gland. This gland then stimulates the adrenal glands to secrete hormones that enable our bodies to handle stress appropriately. If stress continues, or gets worse, to such a point that the body finds it difficult to compensate, adrenal fatigue may result.

This inability to handle continuing stress may lead to symptoms that many physicians see as generic stress, when they are actually indicators of AFS in process.

Learning new and more effective ways to deal with stress, such as seen in the research above, can help people avoid developing the symptoms of AFS. The cognitive exercises studied in the research can be effective methods of handling stress.

Brain fog, a common symptom often seen in adrenal fatigue, is typically due to poor blood circulation. Poor memory and difficulty concentrating are very concerning. While, resolving the underlying root cause is the best solution, cognitive exercises can help diminish the symptoms in the short term.

Cognitive Exercises Help The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response

A new way of considering the body’s response to stress goes beyond simple organ-oriented considerations to a system-oriented approach. This new way, the NEM stress response, looks at responding to stress from a functional medicine standpoint. This approach represents a paradigm shift in handling stress.

The research investigating cognitive exercise, as a means of handling stress would fit nicely into this model. Changing cognitions, through exercises, addresses stress functionally, just as the NEM mind-body approach does. Ensuring optimal neurotransmitter health, and neuro connectivity through cognitive exercises, can go a long way in helping your body handle stress.

Your metabolism may benefit from cognitive exercisesOne component of the NEM stress response suggests metabolism is affected negatively by stress. Changing cognitions by use of exercises to deal more effectively with stress should therefore affect metabolism positively. Decreased stress should lead to increased and more effective metabolism.

Metabolism and its relationship to stress isn’t well known currently. But, when considered along with the neuroendocrine system and the ways they interact dynamically and functionally, this relationship becomes more obvious and important. Anything that enables people to cope more effectively with stress will improve the dynamic interaction of metabolism and the neuroendocrine system and lead to improved lives for many.

Research, like that outlined in the beginning of this article. is important in our understanding of more effective ways to deal with stress. Learning to deal well with stress will decrease the likelihood of AFS through improved functioning of the NEM stress response system in the body. More positive thinking may be one better way to deal with stress.

 
© Copyright 2016 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


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