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Battle your stress solo, expert says.

Solitude gives brain chance to sort it out

Published: May 23, 2005

   If you completely forgot about your dreaded yoga lesson today, it could be that the exercise is stressing you out so much, it's affecting your memory.

At least, that's one conclusion of researcher Sonia Lupien, who's been studying stress for years and is director of the laboratory of stress research at the Douglas Hospital. Yoga might work for some, but if you can't stand contortions, Lupien says you're better off spending one hour a day alone - and the key is to be alone - doing something you like.

But forget television, computers, radios and anything else that stimulates the brain.

How long has it taken Lupien to come up with such a simple remedy for what plagues the modern world?

Seventeen years and three dogs.

Lupien, a mother of two, walks her dog for half an hour in the morning and half an hour in the evening, fulfilling her recommended daily dose of alone time.

"That gives your brain the chance to tell you what you are unconsciously pushing away," she said. "It gives you time to analyze the situation that makes you freak during the day.

"And to come up with a Plan B."

In fact, it was on one of her dog walks that Lupien came up with the idea for a centre to study human stress.

Other scientists have looked at the effect of stress on physical health, such as blood pressure and heart disease, but Lupien studies how higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol affects the brain.

She found that memory and learning was affected in older adults, young adults and children. And if hormone levels can be adjusted through controlling stress, brain function might be improved in people at risk, such as children of low socioeconomic status.

"All these studies show that people of all ages are sensitive to stress - and we need to acknowledge the importance of this factor on mental health," she said.

The World Health Organization predicts that by the year 2020, depression will be the second-leading cause of disability.

So Lupien has started applying her knowledge in the workplace and on children.

She's hoping to teach them how to apply her drug-free way to catch the problem before it develops into burnout, which happens when there isn't enough cortisol, or depression, which is triggered when there is too much. The levels are measured using a simple saliva test.

And when she spoke to groups outside her lab, she realized people didn't have a clue what stress really was.

"Many see stress as the imbalance between demands and resources, but what is that?" she said.

The main characteristics of a stressful situation are: it's novel and /or unpredictable and it gives you a feeling you're not in control. Your body responds by increasing the heart rate, perspiring and shaking.

Stress affects our minds, Lupien said, by impairing our ability to detect what is relevant and what is irrelevant, causing us to forget meetings or - God forbid - to pick up the children.

The way to deal with it, Lupien said, is to take time to give your brain a chance to tell you something is bothering you.

The brain can't stand not being stimulated, so when there are no external stimuli, it'll dig up something being suppressed and pop it out to be dealt with.

Not everyone reacts to a stressful situation in the same way," she said.

"In fact, yoga can be stressful for some, depending on your personality.

"If there's one universal way to deal with it, it's spending time alone."

Lupien is now recruiting middle-age people for a study measuring memory before and after stressful situations.

What will she do to stress out her subjects?

"I'm not telling you," she said, in a very calm voice.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2005

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