Brain rule 8 from John Medina says, “Stressed brains don’t learn the same way.” What he means, unsurprisingly, is that excessive stress hinders our ability to learn and to respond. Medina describes such stress as having three key elements:
- A measurable physiological response to some stimulus.
- Perception of the stressor as aversive.
- A sense of being unable to control of the stressor.
Our stress responses depend in large part on two hormones: adrenaline and cortisol. To oversimplify, adrenaline trigger the release of energy; cortisol helps restore our normal state after stress. Both these hormones evolved when outside pressures demanded rapid but short-term response — like running into a hungry predator, or needing to run into prey.
Contemporary stress tends to last much longer, which means the hormones build up in our system with potentially dire consequences. Excessive adrenaline can damage the cardiovascular system, leading to heart disease or stroke. Excessive cortisol can affect the brain.
The hippocampus, that fortress of human memory, is studded with cortisol receptors like cloves in a ham. This makes it very responsive to stress signals. If the stress is not too severe, the brain performs better. Its owner can solve problems more effectively and is more likely to retain information…. Life-threatening events are some of the most important experiences we can remember. They happened with lightning speed in the savanna, and those who commit those experiences to memory the fastest (and recall them accurately with equal speed) were more apt to survive than those who couldn’t.
We know that learning can improve with a certain amount of stress. Chronic stress, however, can damage the hippocampus, disconnect neural networks, and even kill hippocampal cells. Yet another effect of prolonged stress is clinical depression. Not only can depression affect memory, reasoning, fluid intelligence, and other mental processes; it often leaves its victims convinced that there is no way out of their current state.
I’m speaking from experience when I say that few things can be as personally devastating as the distorted beliefs that form a significant part of depression. A “snap out of it” or “you shouldn’t feel that way” response from significant people in a person’s life tends to reinforce rather than dispel depression’s deleterious effects.
What’s the impact of stress on the workplace?
- Stress causes health problems. “… 77% [of workers] report being burned out; this translates into a lot of cortisol, a lot of missed meetings, and a lot of trips to the doctor.”
- Stress impedes fluid intelligence, problem solving ability, and memory formation.
- Overstressed people are often fired or leave their jobs for health reasons. Such turnover disrupts productivity, not to mention personal job satisfaction.
The perfect storm of occupational stress appears to be a combination of two malignant facts: (a) a great deal is expected of you and (b) you have no control over whether you will perform well.
As I read this chapter, I thought about ways of managing stress in my own life. I often use a tool like the Beck depression inventory to gauge whether my perceptions are trending in an unfavorable way.
Thinking about work-life balance, I wonder whether occasions like performance reviews, especially in formal ones, might provide a chance to discuss the amount of control and the amount of predictability a person sees in his job. Unrelenting sameness or tedium provides its own form of stress. And a person who’s overstressed is, in a real sense, not in his right mind.
Stress photo montage by j.lee43 / jessica johnson.