How Stress Makes Us Stupid

Over the past few years, I’ve become more and more of an advocate for decent strategic planning in the lead up to the December break and the flip over of the calendar to the next year.  Strategic planning that allows us to consider, download and offload the year we’ve had – processing the lessons, assessing what to take forward with us and what to leave behind.  Strategic planning that allows us to put the building blocks we’ll need at the beginning of next year in now so that we can hit the ground running in January.  And then, when those two aspects are taken care of, take ownership of some decent rest and recharge over the illusive December break.
Illusive because it is both short and filled with un-restful things.  Whether you work in an industry that keeps pulling through over that time, or whether your life is filled with friends and family – if we’re not careful, our opportunity to punctuate the turning of time with some replenishment passes us by.  Instead of arriving in January ready to make decisions and take a powerful run at the year, we arrive there with only enough energy for a short sprint and are worn out and mentally defeated by March.
On top of these “normal” considerations, we’re layering the last two years of bizarre and never-ending change.  Change on a whole new level to what we’ve previously been prepared to deal with.  Change that seems to bring us the same thing again and again without us feeling any more powerful to overcome it.  Change and uncertainty that threaten everything that is most dear and important to us – everything that we like to feel certain about.  The past two years have continued to threaten our livelihood and our families in many varied ways.
One of the biggest problems we may be unaware we’re facing is that prolonged stress can make us stupid.  We’re built for short-term stress – for immediate action – be that physical or mental.  And no, having to continuously make new decisions over a prolonged period of time doesn’t mean each decision counts as short term change.  Not when there is a long-term undercurrent of stress that underpins it all.
Our stress response is driven by the part of our brain that contains our fight or flight reflex.  The part of our brain that is literally programmed to give us only two options – both of which are physical, not mental.  Stand and fight, or run away.  Because of the short-term nature of this immediate reaction, there is no higher thinking programmed into this response.  The part of the brain that deals with reaction and the part of the brain that deals with higher thought are different.  Your brain is programmed to handle your immediate physical survival BEFORE it allows you to think about a layered, strategic approach.  The physical response part of your brain supersedes the higher thinking part and literally takes it offline.
The physical repercussions of having the stress hormones that dictate our physical response present in our system for an extended period are considerable.  Adrenaline & cortisol wreak havoc on our health and can cause adrenal fatigue, weight gain and heart attacks.  The longer we’re in this state, the less likely we are to be using the higher thinking parts of our brain.  And this is not a biological switch you just “decide” to flip on and off because you need to think about important things today.  This is a process that your brain biologically has complete autonomy over.
When was the last time you forgot the minor details of what was discussed with a colleague?  Details like who was going to do what and when?
When was the last time you asked someone an upfront question and received a blank stare – or a flicker of something that looked more like fight or flight, than the intelligent response you were hoping for?  Did they eventually kick into offering an excuse instead of the information you were wanting?  Did they defend why they didn’t have it?
What about asking for new thinking, for innovation, for thoughts about what to do next year?  Has that been met with enthusiasm and suggestions of innovation, or silence?
If any of these kinds of requests for higher thinking have been met with blankness, resistance or defence – then you’re dealing with a stress response and not a brain that currently has access to its higher thinking centre.
So what can we do to get out of this cycle?  How can we avoid the undercurrents of our world commandeering our usefulness?  How can we stop ourselves and those around us from being incapacitated mentally or physically, both in the short term, as we prepare to take a run at the new year?

Here are two things you can do:

1. Actively create a calm space

Take into consideration that prolonged stress may be making you and the people around you stupid.  Make an added effort to create a safe and calm space for thinking and strategic conversations by managing the environment around you, and the way that you discuss and ask for that information.  Creating space for calm conversations, making a bigger effort to allow people to settle in before asking for higher thinking, and encouraging them rather than pushing them when you can see that their understanding or response is not immediate will help to bridge this gap.  Point your conversation at the problem, not at the people involved.  That way, they can offer solutions rather than defence.

Rather than assuming people don’t have the answers, assume they are under stress and need to switch off the reactive part of their brain in order to switch over to the higher thinking part.  This takes calm, not confrontation.  Be patient.  Be kind.

Be aware that if you’re asking them for information that may feel threatening in any way, their immediate response is unlikely to be intelligent unless they’ve mastered their own stress reflex.  How you lead through these moments will determine the type of relationships you maintain.

2. Claim responsibility for yourself

If you’ve been on the go for a long while and the pressures of work and the world around you have been tugging at you; if you’ve tried to put your coffee in the fridge rather than the microwave, or spent more time than necessary looking for your car keys (again!) – then the signs that you need to have your own back are there.
It’s a fair assumption at this point that all of us need a reset to our stress response system.  The ONLY way you’re going to achieve this is to actively place yourself in a position where your brain feels safe enough to switch off this response for a period of time, allowing your system to clear of stress hormones and recharge.  Part of our stress response is to draw blood away from the brain, our digestion and our immune system and direct it to our muscles while we fight or run away.  When we take responsibility for our own downtime, we can reset this system, allowing our bodies and brains to take up the repair and nutrients they need.  Readying ourselves to hit a new year in an active state of recharge.
This isn’t something we can fake.  You have to actively remove yourself from the things that trigger your stress response.  Whether this means turning your automatic email reply on and your phone off for a few days, or taking some time out with your family – whatever it is that equals rest and recharge for your brain and body isn’t optional IF you want to get further than February with a brain capable of making sound decisions.
Taking responsibility for ourselves and our own internal needs is imperative to remain on top of our game.  Taking responsibility for the space we create for others so that they can more effectively manage their own stress responses is also hugely important.
Reclaim your brain, and help others to reclaim theirs too.

by Christen Killick

December 6th, 2021

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