Don’t you see? We’ve become smart enough to justify stupid behavior. Like, ‘I’m angry at him and I didn’t express it, so I turned my anger inward and now it’s depression, so in order to feel good again, what I should do is call him and express my anger.’ It’s like, if we can make it sound smart enough, we’re allowed to do stupid things. – Carrie Fisher
That’s one of my favorite Carrie Fisher quotes. Not because it’s her wittiest, but because it hits me the hardest. And things only hit me when they’re true.
Only I do stupid things in my life if I can make myself stressed enough. Stress is a big part of my life. When I’m managing stress well or not experiencing it, things are great. I’m in a good mood, I’m fun to be around and life is just…good. When I’m stressed or triggered, things fall apart quickly. I’m mean and moody and irrational. I make dumb mistakes, I overreact, I relapse into old habits.
But according to Carrie Fisher, that’s really no longer an excuse. How many times can I use “Sorry, I was just stressed,” before people stop forgiving me? How long until my mental capacities just give up all together due to the physiological impact of stress?
Let me explain what I mean…
On Saturday I went for a bike ride with my fiancé. I was almost hit three times, I missed the turn I always know to take, and forgot my bike lock. Sunday we went grocery shopping. I grabbed my purse and we walked the seven blocks to Whole Foods only to realize I didn’t have the list. “What do you mean you don’t have the list. I handed it to you,” he said. “No, you definitely didn’t,” I argued back. We walked back to the house to find the list in my pocket.
“Should I get a brain scan,” I thought to myself. Why am I forgetting so much stuff? What’s wrong with me? When I decided to do some research I came across an article in the US National Library of Medicine with the summary, “Neural circuits responsible for conscious self-control are highly vulnerable to even mild stress. When they shut down, primal impulses go unchecked and mental paralysis sets in.”
‘Mental paralysis’ intrigued me. According to the article, our old understanding of our reactions to stress lied in the hypothalamus. This structure at the base of the brain was responsible for producing the wave of hormones (cortisol, etc) that lead to what we know causes inflammation, decreased appetite, high blood pressure. New findings, however, explain why we also become moody, irrational and mentally unhinged under stress.
In front of the hypothalamus is the prefrontal cortex, the area immediately behind the forehead. This part of the brain serves as the control center that mediates our highest cognitive abilities—concentration, planning, decision making, insight, judgment and the ability to retrieve memories. According to authors of the study, Amy Arnsten, Carolyn M. Mazure, and Rajita Sinha, “The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that evolved most recently, and it can be exquisitely sensitive to even temporary everyday anxieties and worries.”
The prefrontal area houses the neural circuitry for abstract thought and allows us to concentrate and stay on task, while storing information. These neurons also send out connections to more distant reaches of the brain that control our emotions, desires and habits. When unstressed, the circuits in this network hum along contentedly.
When we’re stressed, these neurons stop working. When stressed, the chemicals released by the hypothalamus actually shut off neuron firing in the prefrontal cortex, which cuts off our ability to regulate behavior. Imagine your brain like a car, when it becomes overheated, certain parts of the car will shut down and the car stops running. That’s your prefrontal cortex on stress.
When your prefrontal cortex is exposed to this assault, this ‘overheating’ for too long, the effects can become irreversible. According to the authors, chronic stress shrivels the areas of our brain engaged in reasoning. This is known as prefrontal dendrites and can ‘regrow’ if stress disappears but the ability to rebound becomes harder if the stress is severe. On top of it all, researchers have found that women are more reactive to stress due to our high levels of estrogen, which amplifies sensitivity.
So what does all this mean? Or better yet, what can we do about it? The article goes on to list new treatments emerging that could block these reactions or strengthen prefrontal cortex networks, however, that’s not going to help us today, or tomorrow. What I think is going to help is an understanding of ourselves, our brain and simple things we can do to stop the assault on our prefrontal cortex when we’re feeling stressed.
According to the authors, “Perhaps by learning about how the brain reacts to stress, you may come away with an enhanced sense of control.” Maybe just by becoming aware of what’s happening to our brains when we’re acting irrationally, we can stop it. Like math class, at a certain point you just don’t know how to solve the equation because you don’t understand what the variables are. Now that you understand the variables, you can see the equation more clearly. Now that you understand what’s happening and why it’s happening, you can work on answering it, or in our case, stopping it.
So next time you find yourself forgetting things, acting irrationally, jumping into destructive habits, remember your prefrontal cortex. Remember that this is the sign that stress has taken over and if you can recognize that stress is the culprit, you can consciously work on ways to stop stressing.
What are those ways?
- Even though I hate when articles end with the abstract advice to meditate, it has been proven over and over again how meditation helps to reduce cortisol responses and increase self-control – two effects we now know are linked to the prefrontal cortex and stress. I know I’m going to try it again. Check out this Simple Guide to 5-Minute Meditation.
- Set up a ‘Post Worry Zone’ to dump your stressful thoughts into.