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Can you remember a time when you felt severely stressed or under extreme pressure?

Can you remember what it felt like and the effect it had on your thinking?

Did it make you feel anxious or depressed? Did it affect your performance at work?

Stress has been defined in a number of different ways but for the purpose of this article, let’s say severe stress is a sense of irritation, tension, nervousness, anxiety, fear or difficulty sleeping, lasting over a month as a result of problems at home, at work or health worries.

However, not all stress is bad. Some stress can be good for us; it heightens our awareness, makes our mind sharper and encourages us to think more creatively.

While simple, acute stress is well recognised as being appropriate in keeping us safe from predators in the jungle, it is severe, chronic stress that has been identified as being detrimental to our health and wellbeing.

This is the type of stress that we allude to when we complain about how “stressed” we are and the type that needs stress management.

It’s the sort of stress that keeps you awake at night, worrying. This type of stress is known to be a risk factor, contributing to an increased risk of physical and mental illness including anxiety and depression and more worryingly still, cognitive decline.

Signs that your stress levels are becoming a problem typically show up first as forgetfulness and irritability. If you’ve misplaced your car keys for the fifth time this week or snapped at your colleague when they clearly didn’t deserve it, it’s time to take a step back to ponder – is my stress getting the better of me?

The Effect of Stress on Our Body & Brain

From a cognitive perspective, too much stress dampens down our mental bandwidth impacting our thinking skills, attention and memory.

Stress blocks working memory

Stress has an effect on the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain which is also known as our “executive suite”. This part of our brain is vital for us to be able to pay attention, plan, organise, regulate our emotion and is the place where we have our working memory, where neurons hold information for short periods of time.

Persistently elevated stress hormones have been shown to suppress the development of new neurons in the hippocampus and are associated with loss of memory.

Stress affects emotional regulation

Long-term brain changes associated with excessive cortisol and stress include an enlargement of the amygdala the part of the brain’s limbic system associated with emotional regulation.

In this situation, the brain remains switched on to a permanent state of high alert. The limbic system seeks to take control of the governing body (the PFC) resulting in an emotional coup where you’re left running on adrenaline with an associated loss of emotional control and loss of access to logic, analysis or reasoning.

Stress increases the risk of dementia

A high level of cortisol in the brain has been linked to an increased risk of dementia through its ability to accelerate the process of biochemical and behavioural pathology.

While stress is significant and needs to be dealt with appropriately, it is important not to stress that being stressed will lead you to develop dementia!

Stress can contribute to depression

Too much cortisol, associated with high stress, dampens down your feel-good hormones (dopamine and serotonin) by damaging their receptor sites in the brain, which can contribute to the development of depression.

Stress inhibits new brain cells from forming

Every day, our brains produce new brain cells again, primarily in the hippocampal area, but excess cortisol will have a negative effect on this, inhibiting new brain cell formation. This contributes to poorer brain performance.

Dr Jenny Brockis’ Tips On How to Reduce Stress

Brain Breaks

Take regular brain breaks across your day. A couple of 15 to 20-minute sessions to take a break and dissociate from the thinking that you’ve been engaged in, gives the brain the time it needs to reboot and re-energise. Don’t forget to take a lunch break, too. The distraction from focused thought has been shown to be crucial for consolidating memory, reflecting on the past and planning the future, as well as diminishing the risk of decision fatigue.


Find the Third Space

The ‘third space’ is that space between the activity we have just been participating in and the next one we are about to start.

So, rather than bringing home your work worries, a frown and a bad temper, it’s about separating from those thoughts and feelings before you open the front door.

It’s about knowing how to disengage from a difficult meeting with your boss or manager to transition into a positive appointment with a prospective new client.

It’s about letting go of past stress and inserting sufficient space between those other two, to allow us to reflect on what has just been, take a step to rest from that activity and then reset with a new mindset appropriate to what we want to happen next.


Try to concentrate on being “in the moment” – be aware of your breathing and thoughts and try to quieten down the mind chatter.

Meditation is an excellent stress management method. People who meditate regularly will tell you they find their mind is much clearer and more focused.

There are many different forms of meditation you could try. Mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation have been shown to be especially helpful. Even five minutes of meditation has been shown to produce cognitive benefits. Yoga and Tai Chi also achieve the same results as meditation. So, why not sign up to a class and make it a regular habit?

Eat Well

Choose healthy foods. Stress can often lead to comfort eating. The preference we get for those foods that are high in salt, sugar and fat contribute to a lower mood and poorer thinking.

With the impact of too much stress manifesting as increasing levels of anxiety and depression in society, it’s up to all of us to boost our stress resilience by including healthy food choices, which can be summarised as:

  1. Choosing to include a wide variety of fresh foods in your diet.
  2. Enjoying some probiotics in the form of fermented milk and foods.
  3. Adding in some prebiotics, the high-fibre, less digestible foods to nourish the healthy gut microbes.
  4. Avoiding or reducing your intake of heavily processed food, especially those that contain high levels of added refined sugar (read the labels!).
  5. Making mealtimes a mindful and social experience, taking your time to taste and savour all the delicious components of your food in the company of family and friends.

Get Help

If you are aware of the stress you are experiencing is coming from your work situation or family difficulties, finding a counsellor or course to help teach stress management may be of help. Talking to someone else may help you to think through your problem and find a solution.

Share a Laugh

Having a really good belly laugh is a fantastic physical workout and a brilliant way to dissolve away stress. Watch a funny video, visit your local comedy den or share a joke.


Engage in proper self-care, every day. You know what I’m talking about. Take responsibility to ensure you’re dealing with the fundamentals of how you eat, move and sleep to maintain a higher level of brain fitness, think well and easily manage stress when it appears.


Go for a walk, run or do another form of aerobic exercise on a daily basis. This is a great way to lower cortisol while boosting dopamine. Don’t just take my word for it – get your trainers on and discover the benefits for yourself.

Manage Your Mental Load

Your brain receives over 11 million bits of information every second, a slightly overwhelming amount of information, not all of which is relevant to you, to your survival or to your thrival. Reducing your cognitive pressure comes from using your brain correctly (i.e. choosing to monotask).

Manage Your Mindset

Build self-awareness about how your mind operates to nurture a growth-oriented mindset and be more mindful to how your interactions with others influences your energy and outcomes. Challenge your thoughts and language to flip from catastrophising and negative self-talk to consider what would help best in your current situation. Choosing to reframe how you see stress may not only help reduce your likelihood of becoming sick, it can promote your wellbeing and performance.

Take Time Out

Take time out every day just for yourself, to rest and recover, to focus on the small things that nourish your soul and to do things other than work.

Your mental and brain health can be helped significantly by allocating a small amount of time, even 20 to 30 minutes each day, just for you. If 20 to 30 minutes each day seems unattainable, start with 10 minutes and find a quiet place where there are no distractions or interruptions. Go for a walk, do some exercise, spend time in the great outdoors or listen to some of your favourite music.

Stress can be managed. It’s a question of working out what works best for you.

How much stress you can cope with will vary from day to day and experience to experience. 

What matters is recognising when enough is enough and how to deal with stress that is threatening to get out of hand.

Dr Jenny Brockis Stress Management

A Short Guide to Stress at Work

Brownout & Presenteeism

Stress can lead to us not being fully present at work and can lead to burnout.

Brownout is the term used to describe the mental state experience prior to burnout. It reflects the degree of mental stress that causes you to lose interest in your work, become more distant from your colleagues and feel tired all the time.

It’s that “one Powerball™ and I’m outta here” scenario that can quickly spiral out of control as the cracks in your team performance and wellbeing start to widen.

But while brownout and presenteeism in the short term can lead to diminished productivity and performance, it is the longer-term impact on our mental health and well-being that is the greater concern.

Prolonged excessive stress can cause immense harm – physically, mentally and cognitively.

Mental Health & Wellbeing

Lack of stress management can put the team at risk of anxiety and depression.

Lack of workplace stress management is not only very costly, but it is also harmful to everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing, putting the team at increased risk of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.

With depression now the leading cause of disability in the workplace, it would seem essential that all workplaces put in place those strategies and policies that will provide a brain-safe environment.

Do you know how to recognise when stress levels are too high?

Do you practise stress reduction techniques that build resilience opposed to stress-induced cognitive impairment?

Would you know what to do if you recognised someone else was struggling with their stress levels?

Stressed Out

How to Reduce Stress at Work

Duty of care is everyone’s responsibility.

Through creating and maintaining a safe work environment from a physical, mental and cognitive perspective, we can develop a workplace culture that cares and that helps in managing stress.

If you’re in an environment that’s dragging you down, all the yoga classes and nutritious lunches in the world aren’t going to protect you against the perils of overwork, toxic individuals and lack of support.

What can help is to nurture the lifestyle choices and mental skillsets that can help keep us safe. These include what keeps us well – looking after our nutrition, sleep and exercise and developing the emotional and social intelligence skills to understand how our thinking patterns, habits and mindset can work to help or hinder our success.

This combination builds stress resilience, keeping you feeling happy, more in control and focused on what matters.

Do you need less stress at work?

Workplace flexibility takes our physiological and psychological needs into account.

If you’ve noticed that work has lost its lustre, that sleep is no longer refreshing, and everything feels like a chore, it’s time to step back and check-in to ask, “Is everything OK?”.

Taking care of business starts with taking care of you, managing your stress levels and knowing when – and how – to stop.

Stress Management
Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, keynote speaker and best-selling author. You can now pre-order her new book ‘The Natural Advantage’ due for publication in October 2024.

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