For many of us, the last six months have taken a big toll on our capacity to effectively manage our lives against the backdrop of constant stress, worry and heightened anxiety.
If you’ve been finding it harder to think straight, to make sensible decisions or to remember new information, you are not alone.
Not all stress is bad
A little bit of stress is helpful to enable you to step up to a challenge, to sharpen your focus and improve your ability to remember details about the situation you’re dealing with. This is useful when studying for an exam, about to take your driving test or getting ready to deliver a presentation to your boss.
But too much ongoing stress triggering the stress response leading to fight-flight or freeze then fails to switch off. Thinking becomes more muddled, emotions fray and sleep disturbed.
Identifying chronic stress
Our modern lifestyle has contributed greatly to the amount of ongoing stress being endured.
Overwork, work pressures, job insecurity, financial worries, health issues, loneliness and relationship problems can result in the body being left in perpetual threat mode with increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol being released. Like a taut string, you become hyper-sensitive to noise or comments, you may feel angry, irritated or frustrated. You may shout, yell or cry more easily. You’re more likely to be harder to live with and certainly less fun.
Chronic stress can trigger mental illness
According to a recent survey published in the Medical Journal of Australia, there has been a doubling of mental health problems since the onset of the global pandemic with 40% of respondents reporting experiencing high levels of anxiety and one in six reporting symptoms of depression.
Severe chronic stress can trigger psychological distress and mental illness because it causes long- term changes to the brain. Daniela Kaufer and her colleagues from UC Berkley have discovered how chronic stress leads to more myelin producing cells and fewer neurons than normal being produced. Myelin, also known as white matter, serves like insulation tape around the neurons assisting in increasing the speed of electrical transmission of messages.
If this happens, this results in a disturbance in the balance and timing of how the brain communicates with itself.
The hippocampus is the part of the brain concerned with memory and navigation. The amygdala functions include memory, decision making and emotional response.
If chronic stress results in stronger connectivity between the hippocampus and amygdala through increased myelination, our fear responses will be much quicker and stronger. We are now yelling for help!
Conversely, if the level of connectivity between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain concerned with higher-order thinking and moderation of our responses is reduced, it means we now have less ability to shut down that heightened response.
Other concerns about living with chronic stress include the increased risk of cognitive decline and dementia as we age, the impact on memory and the promotion of an inflammatory state in the body, heightening the risk of developing heart disease.
How do I recognise when I’ve reached the danger zone?
This is different for everyone, but there are a number of common physiological changes you may become aware of including:
- Frequent headaches
- Increased muscular tension leading to more general aches and pains
- Low energy
- Increased frequency of colds and other infections
- Stomach upset with diarrhoea, constipation or nausea
- Loss of appetite or comfort eating
- Loss of libido
In addition, you may also experience some psychological changes including:
- Symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks
- Feeling frazzled, frustrated and time-pressured
- Feeling disorganised
- General moodiness and irritability
- Brain fog
- Loss of focus and increased distractability
- More prone to making mistakes
Tips to reduce your stress for clearer thinking
- Control only what is controllable. Differentiating between what you can or can’t control will help to reduce the amount of time and energy wasted on stressing about what you have no influence over.
- Maintain your helpful rituals. Keep to your routine of what you know serves you well to feel more organised and productive. This can include setting boundaries around your work schedule and ensuring you take a regular lunch break.
- Tap in, to what gives you purpose and meaning. Reminding yourself of who you are and what you stand for can help you find meaning in what you do and lead towards defining your purpose.
- Take time out to defrag. We are human not machine, and not designed to work continuously without a break. By instilling several 20-minute brain breaks into your day to press pause, grab a coffee or go for a walk you get a mental breather allowing your brain to consolidate all that information it’s been taking in and re-energise.
- Find ways to quieten your mind. Busy brain syndrome can develop from trying to squeeze too much into your day and fretting about what isn’t getting done. Like the mental breather including the time to sit quietly, to reflect and think more deeply helps you to process what’s happening, how you are managing and what needs to be done next. Taking time out this way can also include relaxing your mental muscle using a breathing exercise, meditation, listening to beautiful music, having a snooze, reading a book – you choose!
- Get outside into nature. Lockdown hasn’t helped and, it’s true, we spend far too much cooped up indoors. Getting outside preferably into a green or blue space for at least two hours a week has been shown to be the minimum time for better mental wellbeing. When did you last get into your local park or go for a bushwalk?
- Get moving. When you have a lot on your mind and you’re weighed down with worry, getting out for a walk, jog, cycle ride or run can help clear your mind and help you come up with a solution to your challenge. Not only that exercise helps to burn off that excess cortisol and release more of our feelgood hormones dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. Even if exercise isn’t your thing, moving more across your day will improve your state of mind and alleviate some of that anxiety and depression.
- Hang out with those who lift you up and make you smile. You know who these people are. They are the ones you love to spend time with, you know have your back and will look out for you when times are tough. Whether you’ve been in lockdown or are having to self-isolate this is especially important to reduce loneliness.
- Schedule in something that is fun! What do you do for fun? Having fun takes your mind off your worries, reduces stress and elevates those feel-good hormones. Scheduling in your fun could take the form of a dance class, art class, cookery class or surfing. Why not make it even more special by having fun with a friend?
- Help someone else. One of the most powerful ways to reduce stress is to help someone else. Whether you volunteer your time for a charity like Food Bank or notice someone needs a hand to carry something heavy helping out is a win-win because both parties now feel better.
- Express gratitude for what you have. Stress can skew our thoughts towards the negative. Everything starts to take on a greyish hue, and don’t get me started about the impact all our depressing news is having on us. By focusing on what you do have, the good that is around you, no matter how big or how small, we are reminded it’s not ALL bad and research has shown that journaling what and why we are grateful for 3-5 things each day over three weeks translates into six months of feeling more optimistic. Now that’s not a bad ROI!
- Keep an open mind. We all like to believe we’re open-minded. The problem is, severe chronic stress narrows the bandwidth of our perspective. We become closed off to alternative points of view and less willing to consider alternative options. If you catch yourself saying “no way that will work!” or “That’s so wrong, how can you even think that way?” Challenge that thought. Is it fact or your opinion that’s been influenced by your mindset?
- Show some self-compassion and kindness. Do you chastise yourself when things don’t turn out the way you expected? Do you blame yourself when you make a silly mistake or make a social gaffe? Our negative self-talk can make us feel worse! If you wouldn’t speak to a friend that way, why do we berate ourselves this way? We are all flawed, imperfect and very good at stuffing things up. Giving yourself permission to accept your mistake, to know it wasn’t deliberate and that you are unlikely to repeat it can help with self-acceptance and the knowledge we are ‘enough.’
- Take a reframe. Actors know that films and programs are rarely if ever taken with one shot. Being willing to step back to consider how a different angle or changing the lighting could improve the outcome or repeating it to be word perfect makes reflection and review normal. In the same way, if things are getting you down and a particular person or incident is getting you down, take a reframe. How else could you interpret what is happening? Did that person really mean to cause offense or are you a little sensitive to things at present? Did they really act that way just to upset you or is something happening in their life that led to their behaviour? It’s easy to assume and jump to conclusions. What if these are wrong? Taking a reframe can take the sting out of your reaction.
- Laugh more. Life can be so serious. Remembering to smile and laugh more helps to reduce muscular tension, is a great work out for the body, lowers stress and helps you to feel happier. Have you laughed enough today?
Lastly, please seek help if too much stress is getting you down or creating a lot of anxiety.
Putting your hand up to ask for help can feel hard, but it’s the fastest way to a quicker recovery and to getting your life back on track.
As humans, we have evolved with stress.
And we all have limits as to how much stress we can cope with, especially during these unusual times.
What counts, especially during this time of ongoing uncertainty is to keep our stress in the healthy zone and to put in place those daily activities that reduce the amount of stress being experienced so you can retain your clarity of thought.
Is too much stress making it harder for you to think straight?
What strategies have you found helpful?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase