Stress makes you stupid. It makes your brain take shortcuts in order to make speedy decisions, theoretically in the name of self-preservation. This can be enormously helpful if you are a paleolithic hominid confronted by a sabre-toothed tiger. It is far less so if you are an overtired mother-of-two whose heart breaks every time she is unnecessarily irritable with her children.
This happens because of the way our brains process data. Emotions are processed in the oldest part of our brain, the limbic system. When we are exposed to stress, it sets off a reaction the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the limbic system. This activates our sympathetic nervous system, or fight/flight/freeze/faint response. Jolts of stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol are released to sharpen our senses and ready for action. So far, so good.
Are you sure you want to do that?
Rational thought occurs in the most newly-evolved part of our brains, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). It is here that our complex problem-solving takes place – where we consider our options, taking into account nuance and context. While emotions always have a big part to play in our decision-making, the PFC probes and tests our impulses, weighs their credibility, and suggest alternative courses of action.
In this sense the PFC acts as a backstop, a way to prevent our emotional responses from governing our lives in an unhelpful manner. For example, you may be lying in bed at night and suddenly you are startled by a noise from downstairs. This leads to a spike of activity in your amygdala as you experience the urge to either reach for your cricket bat, hide beneath the bed, or even escape through the window. Luckily your PFC kicks in and assesses other data available, and recalls that your husband/wife/partner went out for a few drinks earlier and that sound is just them coming home, so you turn over and go back to sleep.
The problem is that our lives are in fact very safe in terms of imminent death, but highly stressed in more abstract ways – opening bills, dealing with troublesome colleagues, worrying about our kids. Epigenetics researcher Bruce Lipton describes it in The Biology of Belief as permanently living like a sprinter in a race where the starter has said, ‘on your marks, get set…’ The ‘Go’ never arrives, but we are left there, taut, tense, waiting, unable to switch off and relax.
This chronic stress is deeply corrosive in many ways, not least in how it affects our ability to think. In his book Behave, Robert Sapolsky describes it thus: ‘Instead of causing aroused focus,’ he writes, ‘it induces chicken-with-its-head-cut-off cognitive tumult … During sustained stress, the amygdala processes emotional sensory information more rapidly and less accurately, dominates hippocampal function, and disrupts frontocortical function … [it makes us] more fearful, our thinking is muddled, and we assess risks poorly and act out of habit, rather than incorporating new data.’
Sometimes this can have tragic consequences. We’ve all heard the stories of policemen shooting unarmed suspects who were reaching for the wallets or phones, swearing blind that they saw them pulling a gun. And it’s true. In the moments leading up to the shooting, the stressed policeman’s brain would have overridden the usual process of due diligence – in short, he would effectively be seeing a gun. Habit then takes hold, his training kicks in, and he shoots first, taking the life of an innocent man.
Equally, the chronically stressed mum-of-two knows that the best way to nurture her children into responsible adults is to calmly explain why chucking an entire roll of toilet paper down the loo may not be the brilliant idea it seemed to them. But because she is worried about her own mum being sick, the gas bill being overdue, the fact she has gained half a stone, her brain takes the pre-programmed shortcut of BAD THING HAPPENS = GET MAD AND SHOUT.
So what can we do about it? Fortunately, quite a lot. Herbert Benson, Professor of Mind/Body medicine at Harvard University, notes that ‘Many studies have shown that mind/body interventions like the relaxation response can reduce stress and enhance wellness in healthy individual and counteract the adverse clinical effects of stress in conditions like hypertension, anxiety, diabetes and ageing.’
Techniques like hypnosis and mindfulness can quickly create a new baseline from which to operate, reconnecting us with the profound ability we all possess to heal ourselves. Once we access this place of calm, we can use whichever parts of the brain we need to make the best decisions for ourselves. We build our resilience, and move from a place of unconscious, automatic reaction to considered, conscious response. And while we may not always make the smartest choices, at least give ourselves the best possible chance.