Prolonged Periods of Stress are Bad for the Long-Term Health of Your Brain
This month is National Mental Health Awareness Month in the U.S., and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week in the U.K. So I thought I would share with you some of the interesting facts I learned about how stress impacts our brains and our decision making process while researching my book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes.
Stress is a major obstacle in life. A recent survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) states that nearly 50% of Americans are kept awake at night due to stress. (And this was before the 2020 coronavirus pandemic!)
Impact of Stress on Your Brain
There is a greater increase in cognitive stress than ever before, mostly as a result of information overload combined with an ever-increasing array of distractions and interruptions. We all need to take a collective deep breath, pause, and regain control of our 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 people 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.”
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. As a result, emotions override cognitive thinking, and we all know how well that typically works out (go ahead, send that email, what could possible go wrong?).
And, of course, poorly modulated emotional responses not only fail to resolve most stressful situations, they also tend to lead to more stress and more impaired cognitive functioning.
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, alcohol abuse, and binge eating sends overly stressed people down the slippery slope of self-destruction. Extreme and continuous periods of stress disable the ability to exercise self-control over eating habits and drug and alcohol usage.
We are already seeing signs of this as the current shelter-in-place and lockdown rules continue around the world. And unfortunately, many of us are going to learn about this as we hear about, or personally experience, the increases in alcohol abuse, binge eating, and domestic abuse that are a sizeable side effect of these pandemic policies.
Better Decision Making
Leaders in the workplace are poorly equipped to handle their own stress, much less the stress of their direct reports and colleagues. And the situation will get worse when people start returning to a workplace environment full of anxiety, uncertainty, increased pressure to make up for lost time, and higher stress levels.
This is why I developed our one-day workshop on Better Decision Making: Shifting from Mind Full to Mindful Leadership. This program is an excellent re-bonding opportunity for leaders and management teams and will teach them new techniques and tactics for handling stress in the workplace and preventing stress from negatively impacting their decision-making processes. Contact me today to discuss how to bring these best practices into your organization.
Thanks for reading and thinking about these critical workplace issues.
In appreciation, and to support National Mental Health Month, my book Better Decisions Better Thinking Better Outcomes is free this week in the Amazon Kindle store. Download your free copy now.
Part two of this two-part series is on the impact of stress on your brain will focus on the impact of stress on decision making.