stressed out man

Plastic Fantastic – Influences on Neuroplasticity: Interventions to Promote Well-being

Stress. With the advent of the Corona-Virus pandemic, the term has become a commonplace feature of our secular and personal lives. In many instances, the shift toward greater social isolation, has led to the integration of work, home and family roles, and with this, the blurring of the boundaries between these spheres. There is in fact a term for this new integration of roles, Role Blurring, which is defined as1:

“a subjective, cognitive phenomenon involving perceived integration of work life and home life that is situated in a highly interdependent work-family context such as the simultaneous work and family demands that can be present when people bring their paid work into the home”

Whilst role blurring need not always lead to role conflict (as work can in some instances be structured around family responsibilities2), the sudden change to remote working left many organisations scrambling to make work arrangements, with subordinates and superiors alike trying to find balance between work commitments and family responsibilities, whilst battling the distress created by the risk of infection and in many instances, inability to find a hospital bed should the worst in fact occur.

This sudden onslaught of social and secular change has effectively created a perfect storm of distress, one which many have weathered for over six months, and with this, the build-up of damaging, cumulative stress.

The Neurological Consequences of Stress-Build-up

Moderate to severe levels of stress lead to the growth of neurons (neurogenesis) in the amygdala (associated with fear, responses to stress and memory), with a decrease in neuron density (neurons shrinking) in the hippocampus (major role in learning and memory) and prefrontal cortex3 (focusing your attention, predicting the consequences of your actions, anticipating events, impulse control and managing emotional reactions).  Furthermore, exposure to chronic stress is associated with inhibited levels of neuroplasticity in the dentate gyrus4-5 (the input region of the hippocampus and is important in learning and memory as it is where your sensory information is merged).

In short then, moderate to severe stress exposure leads us to experience heightened levels of fear and anxiety, with an increased capacity to commit stressful trigger events to memory. In practice this means that the same or a similar stressful event will trigger heightened levels of anxiety and fear in the future, and is coupled to an amygdala that becomes overactive, thereby leading to increased aggression and anxiety (as your brain constantly prepares your body to fight an intangible foe). 

On the other side of the coin though, we see a decreased ability to keep focus on our tasks (i.e.: more daydreaming, online shopping, social media and less work), difficulties with remembering names, word finding difficulties and forgetting tasks, strong emotional reactions to trivial events (such as snapping or being curt), whilst also having poorer willpower and increased impulsivity (i.e.: online browsing leads to online purchases).  

If any of these aspects sounds familiar to you, fear not, for you are not alone.

How to Combat the Neurological Consequences of Stress

The beauty with neuroplasticity is that the brain is mailable and can be restructured to foster positive, health promoting outcomes, even in the face of stress and uncertainty. There is an increasing amount of literature indicating that the use of interventions, specifically designed to promote positive outcomes, leads to the promotion of neurogenesis and positive psychological/behavioural results3.

Here are two key interventions that you can apply to your own life, that have been proven to combat the negative effects of stress on your brain, and mood:

#1: Physical Activity

Yes, I know, you have heard of this one countless times before, but yes, it has a very real effect on neurogenesis. In particular, physical activity has been shown to lead to an increase in neurogenesis in not only the dentate gyrus4 but also in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex7. In practice then, by engaging yourself physically, you are improving your ability to learn, adapt, remember events and appropriately reflect on things before making a decision.  

Research indicates that moderate exercise, three days a week7 leads to neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The idea here is not to aim for perfection, rather aim for good, as when we aim for perfect, the first time we fail, we often give up entirely on the process.

What exactly is moderate exercise? One of the methods used to calculate this is by using heart rate as a gauge. So, time to put that fitness tracker to good use. First, calculate your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220.  For example; if you are 40 years of age, the maximum average number of times your heart should beat in a minute, whilst engaged in exercise, is 180. For moderate exercise intensity you should be within 50% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. When just starting out with exercise, work within the lower level of this target range, and slowly build your ability.

Do you need a gym membership for this? Nope.

Here are some examples of how you can get moderate physical activity, without the expense (and existential guilt when you don’t go) of a gym contract (these should be done for 30 minutes or more):

  • A brisk walk (about 6 kilometres an hour)
  • Jogging
  • Vacuuming, mopping and cleaning (like scrubbing kitchens or bathrooms) your home
  • Gardening (mowing the lawn, raking leaves)  
  • Cycling (under 16 kilometres an hour on level ground)
  • Hiking
  • Yoga
  • Boxing (punching bag)
  • Washing your car (plus this saves you money)

Remember, its only three times a week, with the psychological and neurological benefits far outweighing the time commitment.

#2: Meditation

Meditation has been linked to increased levels of self-control and self-regulation8 and further increased levels of positive affect (emotions), whilst decreasing negative affect9. In practice this means less impulse buys and off the cuff decision-making and less outbursts at that colleague who is driving you crazy in the Zoom meeting. Furthermore, increased self-control and self-regulation are linked to improved physical health13 which means that exercise will likely become an easier habit to maintain as your meditative efforts increase.  

In particular, mindfulness meditation has been found to be particularly effective in decreasing anxiety and increasing levels of positive affect, as it is effective in promoting a non-judgemental mindset, over narrative self-focused mental activity10. Meditation also helps reduce mind-wondering, which is often associated with unhappiness11. In practice then, meditation allows one to know that thoughts are not necessarily facts, lets one be kinder to oneself and keeps the mind on the task at hand.   

In a nutshell then, meditation works because it allows us to get out of our own heads for a bit, stop overdramatising events in our minds, gain perspective and calm down.

From a brain perspective, meditation works because its action reduces the grey matter volume in the right basolateral amygdala, which was also correlated with a reduction in a person’s perception of stress in their life12. The amygdala is like the alarm centre of the brain, by reducing the grey matter volume (the density and therefore effectiveness of the neurons) it gives the higher brain functions a better chance of appropriately assessing and responding to stressful stimuli.

Here is the kicker – the benefits of meditation as mentioned above were found to manifest after only 8 weeks of practicing mindfulness meditation12.

If you are looking for a quick and easy mindfulness meditation guide, you can visit, where you will find a quick and easy mindfulness meditation for beginners. Or click here for a direct link.

Closing Thoughts

Our world as we know it may never be the same again, however, this need not be another trigger event in the arsenal of stress we experience on a daily basis. By taking a small amount of time out to invest in oneself, both mentally and physically, we foster a fundamental improvement in our ability to weather the storms of uncertainty. By aiming for good, and not necessarily perfect, we create a far better springboard from which to start building our investment in ourselves.

So, what are you waiting for, the best time to start investing in yourself was yesterday, the second best time is right now!  


Brown, J., Cooper-Kuhn, C.M., Kempermann, G., Van Praag, H., Winkler, J., Gage, F.H., & Kuhn, H.G. (2003). Enriched environment and physical activity stimulate hippocampal but not olfactory bulb neurogenesis. European Journal of Neuroscience, 17, 2042-2046.

Chambers, R., Gullone, E., & Allen, N.B. (2009). Mindful emotion regulation: An integrative review. Clinical Psychological Review, 29, 560-572.

Davidson, R.J., & McEwen, B.S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689-695.

Desrochers, S.H., & Larwood, L. (2005). Preliminary validation of the Work-Family Integration Blurring Scale. Journal of Family Issues, 26(4), 442-466.

Erikson, K.I. et al. (2011). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 108, 3017-3022.

Hoffman, S.G., Grossman, P. & Hinton, D.E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychological Review, 31, 1126-1132.

Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, C.K., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L., Pitman, R.K., Lazar, S.W. (2010). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17.

Kemeny, M.E., Foltz, C., Cavanah, J.F., Cullen, M., Giese-Davis, J., Jennings, P., Rosenberg, E.L., Gillath, O., Shaver, P.R., Wallace, B.A., & Ekman, P. (2012).

Contemplative/emotion training reduces negative emotional behavior and promotes prosocial responses. Emotion, 12(2), 338-350.

Killingsworth, M.A., & Gilbert, D.T. (2010). A wondering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330, 932.

McEwan, B.S. (2007). Physiology and neurobiology of stress and adaptation: Central role of the brain. Physiological reviews, 62, 431-445.

Moffitt, T.E., et al. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, 108(7), 2693-2698.