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How we handle stress can determine our quality of life. While acute or short-term stress can help prime the brain to perform better, there is no doubt that chronic, or long-term, stress is bad for health.

Constant stress has become part of our lives. While we can’t escape the stress of pollution, or the mental stress of living in a highly connected world, there are some who can manage stress more effectively than others, so that it does not affect their health.

Assistant professor Dongju Seo and her colleagues at the Yale Stress Center, US, were curious to find out if there is a part of the brain that responds differently to stress in people who manage it better. The team chose to compare two groups of people—those who were able to maintain healthy eating and drinking habits irrespective of the curveballs that life threw at them, and those who were binge drinkers and/or emotional eaters. The team performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brains of the subjects in both groups; they were made to look at frightening images. The idea was to see if there was a difference in the way the brains of the subjects responded when faced with stressful imagery.

The researchers found that the neural flexibility in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is what distinguished good stress managers from poor ones. In other words, in better stress managers, this region of the brain showed an initial lack of activity followed by increased activation. The study was published in the Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences journal in August.

In an email interview, Seo explains: “To better cope with stress, we should first face the stress situation. This way, our brain can fully evaluate it to develop an appropriate coping strategy." 

An important caveat of this study is that its findings can be generalized more for women than men, as the former comprised a majority of the study sample. Samir Parikh, director (mental health and behavioural sciences), Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurgaon, near Delhi, agrees with the findings.

He says that actively solving a problem goes a long way in alleviating stress. The other strategy, he says, is planning for major life events. “Whether it is retirement, a new job, or going off to college, change can be stressful, but if we are prepared for it, we can manage it. Gone are the days when we can take social support for granted. We must cultivate support at both work and home."

He also suggests that one should not multitask or juggle home-related affairs while doing office work or vice versa. Ameeta Chatterjee, author of Joyful Living—Reflections Of A Happy Soul, agrees that multitasking is overrated. Chatterjee, who had a corporate career spanning 20 years, says: “I think the big learning point for me in managing stress, especially when juggling many hats, is the power of being in the present moment. At any given point in time, one should focus on only one task at hand—this ensures the highest level of productivity and creativity."

Seo’s research too makes the same point—our brain can only switch to problem-solving when faced with a stressful situation and when it is focused on the task at hand.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, is a wellness consultant, life coach, and a clinical scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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