Stress has a way of making you do dumb things. It can shut off your ability to think logically and clearly. Here’s the research – and some tools to destress and regain your clarity.
Tongue-tied. Choked-up. Speechless. This is how I felt after my sexual assault.
I felt totally at a loss for words, unable to fully express myself.
Yes me — a professional writer since I turned 28 — and an amateur gabber since I turned 2 – was suddenly rendered nearly mute.
As it turned out there was a neuroscientific explanation for my silent state.
Stress makes you do dumb things.
Okay…let me explain that to you in more scientific language.
During times of extreme stress we humans cross over into what’s called “distress.”
We revert to seeking our animalistic “fight or flight” responses.
The neurochemicals we release while in a stressed “survival state” then make us a bit stupid!
These neurochemicals can wind up taking away nearly 80% of our ability to think!
Yikes! An 80% inefficiency of the brain!
Unfortunately, this lower level of thinking can then lead you to…
- think in stupid, illogical ways
- see things as far worst than they are
- block you from seeing helpful solutions and beneficial opportunities for moving forward
Plus when you’re only using 20% of your brain, you’re more apt to make poor choices.
Examples of how stress makes you do dumb things.
When you’re feeling very stressed, you might decide to…
- say something cruel (poor choice picked by your dimmer 20% brain )
- do something mean spirited (poor choice picked by your dimmer 20% brain)
- eat an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream (yummy and fun – yet still a very poor choice picked by your dimmer 20% brain).
How to make sure stress is not making you dumb
You have three fabulous parts of your brain circuitry – and there are steps you can take to make sure you’re using 3 out of 3 – so your brain can operate at 100%.
Brain Part 1: Your Brain Stem
This is your lower brain – the reptile “fight or flight or freeze” brain – which is focused on survival.
Brain Part 2: Your Limbic System
This is your right brain – the mammal “emotional” brain — which is focused on your feelings
Brain Part 3: Your Neocortex
This is your left brain – your highest level of human “rational” brain — which is focused on thinking, problem solving and goal creation.
Dr. Mark Goulston (a trained neuroscientist and author of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for Dummies) explains: “When you’re in ‘full distress mode,” you lose your ability to think from either your Neocortex or your limbic system. As a result, you end up using your ‘reptile brain’ – and going into fight and flight mode. When you’re in fight mode you feel pure animal anger. When you’re in flight mode, you seek addictions like food or drugs – or just seek solitude.”
This is why stress might make you do dumb things.
When you’re feeling very stressed, you’re putting your reptile brain in charge.
Hence you’re more apt to make poor choices – like saying something cruel, doing something mean spirited, or eating an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Basically, you’re stuck in your reptilian brain – and operating from fight and flight mode.
“What ultimate heals people,” explains Goulston, “is the ability to integrate all 3 of the 3 different circuitries of the brain. The goal is to slowly ‘walk’ your way up and out of your lowest level reptile brain – so you can tap back into your highest level rational Neocortex brain once again.”
A Tool to Get Your Brain Working at 100%
Here are 6 steps you should do when you’re feeling stressed – so you keep your brain at its smartest.
Step 1: Become Physically Aware
Recognize your animal signals of tension that have you primed to act hastily.
ANSWER: I feel what sensations ____________ (tense, tight, numb, nauseated, etc.) in my where ____________ (stomach, neck, head, back, etc.)?
You start here because most people have a physical reaction to distress. They feel it in a place they know they can name. And being able to come up with a correct answer to an exercise increases motivation to continue! Nothing succeeds like success!
Step 2: Become Emotionally Aware
Recognize the emotions which most closely fit with your physical sensations.
ANSWER: I feel __________ (angry, afraid, uptight, depressed, etc.)
Interestingly, recent research by Matthew Lieberman at UCLA shows that’s simply being able to name an emotion halves your “amygdala activation” – otherwise known as your “emotionality.” So this step should calm you by 50%.
Step 3: Become Aware of Your Impulses.
Recognize what your feelings make you want to seek — fight and/or flight and/or freeze.
ANSWER: I have this uncontrollable urge to_________ (run, attack, blame, make an excuse, feel sorry for myself, isolate, avoid, etc.)
Good news! Having answered these few simple questions so far correctly, you’re now more motivated to face your fears and thoughts – and continue upwards to that esteemed Neocortex. Plus, being able to translate a named emotion into a named impulse is the beginning of insight – which means you’re already starting to tap into your Neocortex.
Step 4: Become Aware of Consequences
Recognize the results of acting on your impulses.
ANSWER: The negative consequences of my impulse actions will be ___________ (fall off my diet, stop exercising, call in sick for work, lose my job, beat up on myself afterwards, etc.).
Steps 1-3 above will set the stage for you to now be able and willing to think of the negative consequences of giving into a negative impulse.
Step 5: Become Aware of Solutions
Recognize there are better things for you to do than fight or flight behaviors.
ANSWER: What would be a better thing to do right now? Some positive, thoughtful actions I might take are:___________________________________ (examples: pursuing a new hobby, doing volunteer work, working on a project which excites me, exercising, journaling, calling friends, gardening, walking, reading, etc…).
Step 6: Become Aware of Your New Benefits
Identify what you’ll be getting by acting on the solution in Step 5.
ANSWER: If I do what I just thought of in Step 5 the benefit to me will be ________________________________.
After you’re done doing all these 6 steps, sit back, breathe and feel proud. You now should be tapped back into your full fabulous 3 out of 3 brain circuitry. Enjoy. Go do a crossword puzzle or play a game of Scrabble. Your brain should now be primed to operate at its best.
Think happier. Think calmer.
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