Prolonged Stress Is Not Good For Long-Term Brain Health
There is a greater increase in cognitive stress in leaders than ever before, mostly as a result of information overload combined with an ever-increasing array of distractions and interruptions. Leaders need to take a collective deep breath, pause, and regain control of their reactionary minds.
An article in the Harvard Business Review (Feb 2009) indicates the brain is wired to be more reactionary under stress.
In fact, this flight-or-flight wiring results in stressed-out leaders falling prey to binary choice decision making, which limits the options they take into consideration. As Ron Carucci writes in a subsequent Harvard Business Review (August 2017) article, “In tough moments, we reach for premature conclusions rather than opening ourselves to more and better options.”
Carucci goes on to conclude that, “Faced with less familiar conditions for which our tried-and-true approaches won’t work, we reflexively counter our natural anxiety by narrowing and simplifying our options. Unfortunately, the attempt to improve certainty on the uncertain tends to oversimplify things to a black-and-white, all-or-nothing extreme.”
It is obvious that too much stress is bad for overall health, and this includes the overall health of the brain. A study conducted at Yale University recently found that prolonged stress causes degeneration in the area of the brain responsible for self-control. That is why drug use and alcohol abuse sends overly stressed people down the slippery slope of self-destruction. Their extreme and continuous periods of stress disable their abilities to exercise self-control over their drug and alcohol usage.
If the stress experience is too overwhelming for the usual memory retrieval and processing of the situation, our brains instinctively shift to survival mode. In survival mode, memories and previous response patterns developed in reaction to prior stressful experiences can hijack our emotional and cognitive responses. This often leads to behaviors, actions, and verbal outbursts which do not fit the circumstances and which do not help to alleviate the situation.
In fact, our reactionary actions, behaviors, and words often make the situation worse, thus increasing the stress levels for all involved. This is why we counsel leaders to learn to respond to situations, people, and events rather than react to them. Leaders need to be first responders, not first reactors by pausing, listening, and becoming more mindful and present whenever decisions need to be made.
This article is partially excerpted from my award-winning book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes: How to go from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership, available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle formats. The book is the recipient of a Silver Award from the Nonfiction Authors Association for bringing “a comprehensive plan of action for improving life through recognizing decision-making patterns that don’t serve us well, don’t enrich our lives, and don’t bring us to our goals and dreams.”