When the going gets tough, your brain fights back. And how you react to situations can many times shape what comes next. In fact, how your brain reacts to social stressors can have a lasting impact on your health, according to a slew of new research from the Neuroscience 2013 conference.
Tension with others is inevitable. But if you're not careful, it can make you feel defeated. Constant strain can lead to depression and social avoidance. The good news: It doesn't have to. Your brain is quick to respond to pressure—firing off chemicals and adapting to help you cope. Here are the worst kinds of social stressors, and how smart brains can help you shrug them off.
STRESSOR #1: You can count your friends on one finger
What Happens: Your social skills suffer—and so could your brain size. That’s because larger networks of friends create brains with bigger, more connected regions responsible for decision-making and monitoring others’ actions, reports a study from Oxford University.
Outthink It: Even though unused skills get rusty, your brain adapts to any environment at any age, says study author Maryann Noonan. Polish your social smarts—by chatting with a neighbor or bar-hopping with your buds—and your brain will step up to improve your skills.
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STRESSOR #2: Changing jobs or moving
What Happens: You don’t fit in right away. Research from Princeton University shows that when dominant rats are introduced into a new community, they’re attacked by the existing members. The whole community reorganizes until a previous subordinate wins dominance, and the new member loses his former glory.
Outthink It: If you’re in a new place, lose the chip on your shoulder: While dropping a rung on the totem pole or learning a new culture isn’t always fun, it’ll pan out. In that same Princeton study, animals introduced to new environments were less anxious than the ones already living in the community, suggesting a changing setting can make you more resilient—and better able to handle future stressors, says study author Maya Opendak.
STRESSOR #3: You got passed over for a promotion
What Happens: You head for the couch. Social and work stress can lead to isolating yourself from others—which is no good considering loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and a shorter life span.
Outthink It: Surround yourself with people—even if you want to be alone. Researchers from Mount Sinai found stressed mice that isolated themselves experienced rapid firing of dopamine—a brain chemical crucial to mediating stress responses. Mice that remained social, however, maintained normal levels of the chemical. Powering through repeated tension will help your brain learn not to over-fire dopamine, says Allyson Friedman, Ph.D., of Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
STRESSOR #4: You lost
What Happens: You’ll feel insecure. A French study reports that feeling defeated increases social anxiety and heightens your sensitivity to social hierarchies—which is unnerving since winning has been associated with access to food resources, security, and social support.
Outthink It: Focusing on a mind-absorbing task like an instructed workout or a puzzle can help banish negative thoughts and feelings like defeat, finds a 2011 Harvard study analysis. For new mind and body workouts every month—along with tons of useful health, nutrition, and style tips—subscribe to Men’s Health.
STRESSOR #5: Your competitive colleague is breathing down your neck
What Happens: A lack of support could mean an earlier trip to the grave. Research from Tel Aviv University shows that people who feel their coworkers are unhelpful or unfriendly are more likely to die, even after adjusting for preexisting conditions, than people who feel supported at work.
Outthink It: Play off of each other’s strengths and focus on how you and your office mates can benefit by working together. Monkeys who cooperated to score a better reward than they would independently showed brain cells that could predict the behavior of other monkeys. And being able to anticipate other people’s behavior pays off—especially in the work place. Click here to learn how you can outshine your coworker—without throwing a punch.
Additional writing by Rachael Schultz