Stress can impair your thinking

If we don’t take care of our stress, we prevent our brains from functioning at the highest level.

Cloudy thinking, bad behavior?

Most of us have had times when we can’t seem to concentrate or the mind feels a bit fuzzy. Perhaps you’re making mistakes, making bad decisions, forgetting things, not relating well to others or even lashing out at them.

If you consider the circumstances at the time – or maybe it’s now – you’ll likely realize that you were under some kind of stress. Maybe you were overbooked, feeling frazzled, losing sleep, not exercising, or dealing with a difficult person or situation. Maybe you even experienced a traumatic event such as a death in the family, an illness or loss of a job.

And unfortunately, sometimes after the difficulty is over, you still don’t feel very clear-minded or energetic. The good news is that the cloudy thinking and uncharacteristic behavior makes sense, and it’s not really your fault. It’s what was happening in your brain at the time.

The brain and stress

The bad news is that the stress that you’ve experienced, or are experiencing now, negatively affects your thinking and behavior. (Don’t worry, there’s still good news to follow.)

Research by neurobiologist Amy Arnsten at Yale Medical School shows that when we experience stress, our body produces stress hormones that inhibit the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (PFC).

The PFC helps us perform many of our highest level functions and helps to regulate attention, memory, behavior, emotion, and thought, including high-level decision making and future planning. But it is also the area of the brain most susceptible to damage from stress.

When we are under stress, the stress hormone dopamine is released. Dopamine inhibits the PFC functions and activates the amygdala functions. The amygdala, which sits atop of the brain stem, is responsible for the fear or fight-or-flight responses.

In a nutshell, stress causes our brains to lose the capacity for slower, reasoned responses and increases our capacity for emotional and reflexive, fear-based responses. The latter, as we all know, can get us into trouble.

PFC and pilots

Arnsten’s research points to early studies that were done based on what happened to pilots during the Second World War when many highly skilled pilots crashed in the stress of battle.

This research hit close to home for me. My grandfather was a pilot who crashed a plane during World War II. As the story goes, my grandfather believed the plane malfunctioned, but the army felt the crash was due to pilot error and reassigned my grandfather to driving an ambulance. Later, some years after the war, my grandfather suffered severe depression.

Could my grandfather’s PFC been inhibited? Did he experience self-blame and shame from this? Did that help cause his depression? Entirely possible, because research shows that prolonged stress can lead to depression.

Fortunately with today’s neuroscience research, people can better understand why they may have made a mistake or bad decision under stress.

Chronic stress and brain structure

Even after a stressful event is over, it’s important to allow yourself to recover and relax. Because if you simply jump back in full-swing, which many people do by simply not slowing down, the effects on your brain will remain and can be cumulative.

And when stress accumulates, the effects get worse when stress returns. Again, there’s research to help explain why.

Chronic stress, or stress that remains over longer periods, actually causes nerve damage in the PFC (specifically, loss of dendrites or the extensions of nerve cells that receive impulses from other cells). Arnsten’s study showed that this damage to the PFC can begin only a week of stress.

Another Yale study showed that soon after people experienced traumatic stress such as loss of a loved one, home or job, MRI scans revealed significantly less gray matter in the PFC. So not only can stress affect the function of your brain, it can actually affect the architecture or size of the brain.

Back to the good news

OK, time for the good news. Because the brain is plastic, that is, it can grow and change based on how we focus our attention (click on my last post for more on this), we can save ourselves from losing our high-level brain functioning when our amygdala takes over.

One positive and interesting fact that came out of the research from those early studies that Arnsten discusses is: believing that you have control over a situation, whether true or not, lowers your stress and increases the PFC functioning.

5 tips for protecting your brain from stress

And with that, here are 5 things you can do to better your chances of high-level functioning when stress rears its ugly head:

  1. Be aware of the stress. Notice when you’re feeling stressed so that you can plan accordingly. Maybe you don’t need to say yes to the next event or request for help; maybe you can go to bed early; or maybe you can put off a difficult decision. And ideally, be aware when you are about to step into something stressful so you can brace yourself for it and be ready to take it on. When stress is a known entity, it’s much more manageable.
  2. Don’t stress about the stress. That only increases the stress and likelihood of inhibiting the PFC. And not all stress is bad. (For more on this, see my post Two Ways to Make Stress Good for You.) And don’t blame yourself as that also compounds the stress. Remember, it’s not you, it’s your brain.
  3. Slow down. Hit the pause button when necessary to stop fight/flight. Step away, take a walk, take a breath, call back later when you’ve calmed down.
  4. Focus on what you can control. In most situations, there’s at least some element that is within our control. Figure out what that is, and focus on that. Even when it feels like the answer is nothing, focus on choosing your attitude toward the situation.
  5. Commit to a regular practice that calms your nerves – something active, not passive like watching t.v. Whether that’s exercise, yoga, meditation, writing, art, walking in nature. This will help with chronic stress, and help you be prepared for next stressful event.

It can take some time and commitment to yourself, but isn’t growing your brain and improving your decision-making, planning, memory and behavior worth it?

If you’ve got a friend under stress, please share this post! It really does help to know what is happening in your brain. Or if you’d like some support yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out for a free consult.

Photo by Rodrigo Rodriguez at unsplash.com

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