Many of my patients are unaware of just how much stress affects their lives. One of the first important steps in dealing more effectively with stress is to get a sense of the symptoms it leads to.
Recent studies from the University of Wisconsin indicate that stress can even shift the natural balance of attention in our brains so that we have more difficulty thinking clearly and solving complex problems.
When our brains are in stress-alert mode, we instinctively process a lot of irrelevant information and scan the environment to detect immediate threats. The process can lead to information overload, and we have more trouble paying attention to the solutions to our dilemmas.
During acute stress, electrical activity in the brain declines in the frontal lobe (the thinking brain) and heightens in the amygdala, an area beneath the temples that controls a range of emotions. The amygdala essentially takes over under stress, and we have more difficulty finding reasonable answers to our problems. That’s why it’s not a good idea to make important decisions during a stressful life situation.
Studies also show that after several days of injections with the stress hormone cortisol, human volunteers have trouble learning and recalling new information. Many can’t even remember what they just read.
The good news is that these kinds of stress-induced memory difficulties go away when cortisol levels decrease. In some situations, emotional stimulation can actually increase memory abilities. This so-called emotional memory can kick in during positive as well as negative experiences.
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