In my last blog post on stress reduction, I provided a link to some “diagnostic” tools that can give you an idea of where you’re at in regards to the effects of stress on your life. If you used one or more of those tools, I’d love to hear any feedback you might have for me.

Staying with the metaphor I’ve used previously, in this post I’ll attempt to describe what happens when your “engine thermometer” is in “the red zone.” Read the scenario in the following paragraph and see if you can relate to what this might look like.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were so stressed or anxious that your brain just didn’t seem to engage? You may have found that you weren’t thinking clearly, perhaps making inexplicable mistakes, even having your brain completely freeze up? Maybe a time when you experienced test anxiety? You know, when you were trying hard to dig for answers your brain had hidden in there “somewhere,” but you couldn’t find where that “somewhere” was?

It turns out there’s an explanation for that! And, I find it extremely fascinating to learn why. It’s because “somewhere” is “offline.” The prefrontal cortex (PFC), is the higher executive operating system of the brain. It’s used for problem solving, impulse control, and accessing memory. When the stress response is in full swing, it’s as though the PFC gets hijacked by the survival part of the brain because it’s screaming at us to run for cover in response to a perceived danger.

That’s helpful knowledge to have. If we know what’s occurring, equipped with the right tools, we can do something about it. Here’s something else to know; something rather alarming.

With all the major advances in neuroscience we now know chronic stress is not only harmful on the body, but on the brain itself.  Research shows that the prefrontal cortex, the most highly developed region of the brain is also the “most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure” (Arnsten, A. 2009). Research also shows chronic stress  actually causes detrimental architectural changes to neuron structure and their ability to make networking connections (Hains et al., 2009, Liston et al., 2006Radley et al., 2005, Seib & Wellman, 2003, Shansky et al., 2009). In simplified terms, the chemical environment needed for brain signals to make their normal connections in the PFC, is altered by stress hormones, which impairs their ability to function.

That’s what is happening when your “engine’s thermometer” is in “the red zone.” That’s why it’s so important to do something about it. Please look for my next post which will contain suggestions for ways you can bring that temperature back down to an optimum level.