Stress has become an inherent part of the modern, fast-paced life and there’s no escaping it. However, while everyone is familiar with the emotional and physical effects of stress, the impact of stress on cognition is often overlooked. Cognition implies mental processes such as thinking, memory, attention and problem-solving. Read on to better understand the relationship between stress and cognition, how chronic stress can impair our cognitive functions and learn strategies to mitigate its detrimental effects.
What happens when you are stressed?
When faced with a stressful situation, the body activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, leading to the release of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. One of the primary cognitive functions affected by stress is attention. In situations of moderate stress, our attention and focus are heightened, enabling you to respond effectively to the demands of the situation. This stress response can be adaptive, facilitating problem-solving and decision-making. Under acute severe stress, though, attention gets hyper-focused on the perceived threat, narrowing our field of awareness. This adaptive response evolved in humans to ensure our survival in dangerous situations.
How are stress and cognition intertwined?
Chronic stress can lead to persistent difficulties in concentration and attention. The mind becomes easily distracted, making it challenging to stay focused on tasks or imbibe new information effectively. The continuous release of stress hormones can disrupt the delicate balance required for optimal cognitive functioning. Cognitive flexibility, which is essential for adaptive decision-making, is compromised leading to impaired judgment. Memory retrieval and consolidation can be impaired making it harder to recall information accurately.
Stress impairs the ability to adapt
Chronic stress impairs neuroplasticity, which is the brain's ability to reorganize and adapt. Stress hormones, such as cortisol, can induce neurotoxic effects, compromising the growth and integrity of neurons. The hippocampus, a brain region crucial for memory consolidation, can suffer structural damage, leading to long-term memory deficits. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions such as decision-making and problem-solving, can also be affected.
Effective decision-making relies on cognitive processes such as reasoning, weighing pros and cons, and considering long-term consequences. Unfortunately, stress can significantly hinder these abilities. Chronic stress can impair executive functions, which are crucial for making sound judgments and planning actions.
Chronic stress contributes to a state of cognitive load where mental resources are continuously depleted. This can result in difficulties in multitasking, decreased working memory capacity and decreased overall cognitive performance. The negative impact of chronic stress on cognition can manifest in various aspects of life including work, relationships and personal well-being.
8 ways to manage stress
Recognizing the cognitive effects of stress highlights the importance of effective stress management strategies. Fortunately, several strategies can help mitigate the impact of stress on our cognitive abilities. Here are a few practical suggestions:
Stress management techniques: Engaging in activities such as meditation, deep breathing exercises and yoga can help reduce stress levels and promote cognitive resilience.
Social support: Seeking support from friends, family, or support groups can provide emotional relief and buffer the negative effects of stress on cognition.
Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): Seeking professional help enables development of coping strategies and reframes stress-related thoughts and behaviours.
Healthy lifestyle: Prioritizing adequate sleep, maintaining a balanced diet and avoiding excessive consumption of alcohol, caffeine and nicotine can contribute to overall well-being and support cognitive function.
Cognitive training: Engaging in activities that challenge the brain such as puzzles, reading or learning a new skill can help maintain and enhance cognitive abilities.
Time management and prioritization: Effectively managing time and setting priorities can reduce stress levels and enhance focus, thereby improving cognitive performance.
Physical activity: Regular exercise can help regulate stress levels and promote cognitive resilience.
Mindfulness practices: Cultivating mindfulness through practices like mindful meditation can enhance attentional control and reduce stress-related cognitive impairments.
Stress and cognition are intertwined in a complex relationship. Recognizing stress's dual nature and understanding the toll of chronic stress on cognitive functioning is important. Embracing a holistic approach to manage stress can empower us to navigate life's challenges and lead a fulfilling life.
Dr. Shobha N is a consultant neurologist and stroke physician at Manipal Hospital, Malleswaram
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