Prolonged, chronic stress often causes relative stupidity. Learn more about the connection between stress and cognitive performance.
I wrote my most recent book, What Keeps Leaders Up At Night, on a barstool at my kitchen counter. The day I started chapter 3, a chapter about stress, my neighbor started construction on her house. When I say “construction,” I mean a complete demolition that started at 5 AM and continued well into the night. The contractors enjoyed screaming profanities as loud as they could, blasting music, and doing the loudest possible work either very early in the morning or really late at night. The screaming. The hammering. The noise!
After a week, I was living in a state of chronic agitation, “grrrr-ing” throughout the day, not sleeping well at night, anticipating being awoken by a jackhammer or drill that would feel like it was inside my brain. My concentration and thinking were so shot that I couldn’t think, let alone write. In hindsight, I probably should have gone elsewhere to work, but I couldn’t think clearly. I was stuck in a state of stress-induced stupidity and mired in rage. My state of existence became a stream of fragmented grunts and groans. I lacked the brainpower to change the situation, to think: “Go to a coffee shop or your office, Nicole.” The deadline for chapter 3 was fast approaching.
Prolonged, chronic stress often causes relative stupidity. Today’s business environment is saturated with “low-grade fevers:” financial problems, overwork, job dissatisfaction, jackhammers, drills, information overload and a host of other issues. Amazingly enough, though our brains are capable of dealing with sudden acute stress, they don’t fare so well with chronic stress, i.e., the endless little yipping Chihuahuas that prompt what psychologists call the long-term fight/flight response.
Our stress response triggers hormone secretion (especially mood-altering cortisol) and the perceptions of a given threat determine the type and amount of hormones the endocrine system will dispense. A steady bombardment of blinking lights, phone beeps, email alerts, and personal/professional obligations build up a chemical cocktail that keeps our bodies in a constant state of edginess, impairing memory, thinking and learning. Left unnoticed or ignored, this condition increases the odds that you will end up with serious mental and/or physical health problems, or in my case, pure stupidity.
Stupidity caused by stress is basically a bad case of the interaction between: 1. what you think of the stressor and 2. how you think you can cope with the stressor. These thoughts trigger the biochemical response. Perception, in a way, is everything. When noise pollution from jackhammers or yipping Chihuahuas has you stuck on your barstool at your kitchen counter instead of sitting with a laptop and a cup of Joe at a nice, cozy coffee shop, it’s time for a perspective shift from duh to do. Many factors figure into a particular person’s response, such as their personal beliefs, a tendency toward pessimism or optimism, their sense of control over a situation, and one’s degree of hardiness.
Now, I’m a hardy lady but I was mired in pessimism and felt really out of control because I couldn’t think straight. My self-awareness was shot. I couldn’t formulate the questions, “How is this event threatening me?” or “How am I coping with the event?” because I perceived I was trapped. My answers to these questions were “It’s driving me crazy!” and “I’m coping like an idiot because I’m not doing anything.” Figuring out what I could control (my response and my actions) and what I couldn’t control (contractors and their schedule) forced me to shift perspectives. Truly a great exercise in any situation because guess what: you can’t control most events in life, but you can certainly control reaction to them.
Several weeks later, I awoke startled by the sound of a circular saw whining its way through a 2 x 10 floor joist. I went about my same routine of trying to write with a bad case of “in the house” road rage, poking the letters on my keyboard and typing out curse words over and over again. With my hair all over the place, in pajamas, I impulsively threw on a pair of boots, grabbed my winter jacket and ran out of the house into my car and found myself at a Best Buy 5 minutes later, uncharacteristically throwing down a hefty sum for the best pair of noise-canceling ear phones on the market. I came back home, plugged the headphones into my computer, and found a website that broadcasted white noise. Ahh. Silence. Bliss.
We will not discuss what happened a few days later in my über-productive, noise-cancelling state when I didn’t hear my friend key into my house after apparently knocking on the door and figuring I wasn’t home. That’s a different story about the wonders of the acute stress response versus the prolonged stress response (and how to get a blood stain out of the carpet).
The moral of this story? Stress is pretty much a given in our business lives (and for many of us, in our personal lives). But the stress response is negotiable. A healthy dose of stress can motivate us to respond effectively to challenging situations, accomplish goals and get the job done. In fact, the right response to stress has kept the human race alive for millennia. It sends a signal that you must do something to deal with the situation. Implementing the right response leads to survival, success, better health, brain function, and in some cases (okay, in my case) reduced stupidity.
Nicole Lipkin is a business and organizational psychologist, consultant, and speaker, holding a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She is the president of Equilibria Leadership Consulting and the founder of Equilibria Psychological and Consultation Services. In addition to her new book, What Keeps Leaders Up at Night (CLICK HERE to get your copy), Nicole is the co-author of Y in the Workplace. Nicole has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. She lives in Philadelphia.