Why Stress Makes Us Stupid

Have you ever been caught off guard or put on the spot and wondered why you couldn’t think straight or come up with a response that you thought of later? It’s because stress literally makes us stupid. When we perceive a threat, real or imagined, the part of our brain that is responsible for logical thinking (neo cortex) shuts down, and the emotional part of our brain (amygdala) takes over, throwing us into fight or flight mode. This is known as the amygdala hijack. When we respond during a hijack, we usually say or do something that we later regret. After a full-blown attack, it takes a full 18 minutes for the neo cortex to start working again and process the situation logically. Over time, our brain neurons start to erode. Chronic stress causes memory loss and kills brain cells.

So what can we do to offset the effects of an amygdala hijack?  If at all possible, the best thing to do is remove ourselves from a situation we perceive to be threatening. If you are at work, say that you need to excuse yourself and then take a walk or go into the bathroom where you can get away from everyone.  This does two things for us. First, it gets us out of an immediate situation where we might say something that we may regret later. Second, it gives us time for our neo cortex to start working again so we can respond logically rather than emotionally. If that’s not possible, here are some tips to stop an amygdala hijack, which come from Deepak Chopra citing The Dalai Lama:

S – Stop.

T – Take some deep breaths and smile in your whole body. (Visualize this.)

O – Observe your whole body. (How are you feeling physically? What is happening in your body? Pay attention to your heart rate and your breath.)

P – Proceed with compassion. (Choose your response intentionally instead of reacting out of emotion.)

 It isn’t life’s events, but one’s reactions to them that activate stress.”  – David Hawkins, author, Power Versus Force

 “External circumstances are not what draw us into suffering. Suffering is caused and permitted by an untamed mind.”  – The Dalai Lama

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