Do these scenarios sound familiar?
- You’re late for an important dinner meeting, there’s no sign of the babysitter, the dog needs to be walked, and your toddler is about to stick a screwdriver in the electrical outlet. You go to shout at her to stop, but you come up empty – or you call her by her brother’s name!
- It’s final exam time – you’ve got to do well to keep your grade point average up. After studying all day, you decide to take a study break to get some food. You need some cash, so you go to the ATM on campus. A few hours later you realize that you left your ATM card in the machine.
Do situations like these mean you’re totally losing it? Not really. But the very high levels of adrenaline and cortisol released during prolonged stress can actually curb your thinking processes and derail your ability to recall information that you clearly know. Stress can make you feel (and act) “scattered” and unable to think carefully or focus on a conversation or task. Chronic stress, in fact, may actually damage brain cells.
How does stress influence your thinking? In an earlier blog post, I described the mental part of the fight-or-flight response. Under the direction of adrenaline and cortisol, certain parts of your brain automatically spring to action during stress. Stress leads to an increase in alertness and attention. But it’s not the good kind of alertness and attention. Instead, your mind automatically gets locked into thinking about the source of the stress. You become preoccupied – unable to take your mind off your troubles. That’s why if you’re with other people, they might notice that you seem like you’re lost in thought, distant, or not paying attention. The fact is that you are paying attention – very close attention – but only to what’s got you so stressed out. Talk about a one-track mind!
If you think about it, this is actually a useful effect of the fight-or-flight response. After all, if something inside didn’t automatically shift our attention (and lock it) to things that could be harmful or threatening to us, we might not survive. But too much of this has the opposite effect: your mind has only so many resources; and when most of them are focused on the stressor, there’s not much left to go around.
The result? Your mind becomes fatigued and you have trouble concentrating on everyday activities; you forget people’s names; you have trouble remembering simple routines; you focus on the worst possible outcome; and your judgment even becomes impaired. Research shows that long-term stress can even permanently harm your brain functioning: in one study, people exposed to high stress for just 3 to 6 years showed impaired memory and learning skills.