Stressed out of your mind

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.

Adrenalin, cortisol, adrenalin, cortisol...

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.

2 thoughts on “Stressed out of your mind

  1. TÄ“nÄ? koe Dave

    Thanks for this post. I have a degree from the university of life in stress and stress management. I think most teachers have acquired a few stages of this in some form or other.

    I would add to Medina’s list that one of the key symptoms of severe stress is inability to prioritise, which of course impacts directly on the ability to concentrate – hence the learning connection.

    Having suffered clinical depression as a result of severe stress in my life, I can confirm that the ‘snap out of it’ and the ‘you shouldn’t feel that way’ approaches are definitely not only counter productive (as you say simply reinforce rather than dispel) but are also an explicit admission of denial by the deliverers.

    Though I’ve been stressed and depressed as a result, I’ve never reached the critical stage that some do in being suicidal (oops that’s almost a taboo subject in some circles – tut tut!) But I mention it here for not only is it related (and you alluded to this when you said “victims convinced that there is no way out of their current state”), but the denial of it as a practice within society is as common as the ‘snap out of it’ approach to the depressed and stressed out.

    Empathy not apathy towards those who bear the burden of stress and display its symptoms goes a long way though. A ‘sorry’ or even a sincere ‘thanks for that’ when people, stressed out their minds proffer a candid indicator of how they feel about something, goes a long way to ameliorating some of the effects of stress.

    While these may be seen as tokenism they and their equivalents are nevertheless among some of the most powerful words in the human language.

    Ka kite

  2. Ken, I also think that the colloquial use of “depressed” tends to diminish the perception of clinical depression. As you know, the “distorted beliefs” held by depressed people include the belief that their picture of the world is not distorted — e.g., that they always mess up, that they’re incompetent, that the current effort is bound to fail.

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