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How stress can make you stupid, & then stressing about that can make you crazy!

A recent, easy to read article on stress, titled “Brain is a co-conspirator in a vicious stress loop” it is pointed out that when we are chronically stressed, our brain rewires itself in ways that sometimes perpetuate stress.

What happens is that the parts of our brains which just do habitual behavior get stronger, while the parts of the brain that are good at making wise executive decisions get weaker. (The article uses the example of rats that keep pressing a lever to get food, even though they aren’t hungry.)  Such reversion to strong habits may be helpful in some emergencies, which may be why our brains work that way, but this tends to be very unhelpful in chronic stress situations. Instead, we find ourselves carrying out habits that may not make any good sense, while we have a hard time thinking up new things to try or bringing any kind of wisdom or cunning to our decision making.

So that’s how stress can make us stupid. A further point, not covered in the article mentioned above, is how stressing about these changes can amplify the stress and make us truly crazy! When we are really stressed for example, part of our brain might fall into habits of saying certain things to us, and as this starts happening more automatically, it might seem more like a “voice” that is separate from the rest of us.  If we stress about the fact that this is happening, then our overall stress level will go up, and guess what – it starts happening even more!  As this vicious circle accelerates, we can have the sense of going really “crazy.”

The way out of this mess is to just recognize a phenomena like voice hearing as a stress symptom, to accept it while not worrying about it too much, but to take action to reduce stress overall.  With less stress, the voice may fade, or at least become easy to deal with. 

 The problem is that this often seems counter-intuitive:  especially when we are already stressed, with the fight or flight response already triggered, it seems we should be fighting the voice, or other mental health symptom.  We often don’t recognize that generating this kind of internal battle just amplifies stress and accelerates the problem – remember that stress makes us stupid, so we have a harder time seeing connections like that!

When people are all stress out, they may seem not too bright – if we don’t know about this problem, we may see the lack of intelligence as part of the person, or as part of their “mental illness.”  But if we do recognize this stress-related effect, then we can anticipate that what the person needs is to find ways to be supported, and ways to “be”, that lower stress, so that the wiser part of the person can emerge.

2 comments… add one
  • Reading this had me immediately recall an article about “Cognitive Remediation for Schizophrenia” (original in Danish) in the journal of the Danish Psychological Association, quote:

    “Even if Emil Kraepelin already a hundred years ago became aware of the fact, that cognitive dysfunctionalities are remarkable in patients with schizophrenia, this aspect was assumed to be a side effect of the medication for a long time. Yet, newer evidence points to that cognitive dysfunctionality is a core aspect of the illness, and characteristic for most of the patients.” And: “Dysfunctionalities in concentration and memory are regarded biological markers of schizophrenia, since they are detectable long before the onset of the illness, and can be observed in family members of patients with schizophrenia.” (my translation)

    Ah, so, “schizophrenics” are born more or less bird-brained morons. No need to further investigate, what maybe causes the cognitive dysfunctionalities: After declaring stupidity a “biomarker” of “schizophrenia”, the article goes on to present techniques for psychologists to, in spite of the stupidity, efficiently get the “Take your meds!”-message rammed into the bird-brained morons’ heads.

    Well, and no need to say, that reading such a load of bs made me blow a fuse. I do have an ego, and it tends to react somewhat sensitive to being insulted. So, I wrote a piece on the matter, quote:

    “It is totally and completely beyond me how a psychologist can miss the point, that stress, stress, yeah, like in trauma, indeed has the capacity to reduce the stressed individual’s cognitive abilities. Dysfunctional communication and abuse create stress. And thus cognitive dysfunctionalities in addition. Which is true for all involved individuals, also family members, who aren’t labelled, but who nevertheless do practice dysfunctional behaviors. And it is especially true for individuals who are labelled with “schizophrenia”, and who usually have been exposed to huge amounts of stress-creating dysfunctionality. Often throughout their entire childhood and adolescence.

    I’d like to see to which extent Aida Husejinovic [psychologist, the author of the article] herself would be able to mobilize her cognitive abilities in a test-situation, where, during the very same testing, someone pointed a gun at her, threatening to shoot her at the first wrong answer she gave. For, this is approximarely the stress level you live with in a dysfunctional, abusive relationship.”

    I really wonder: how come that even psychologists, the majority, have no more professional curiosity than to simply declare complex psychological phenomena meaningless symptoms of brain diseases, and to obviously see their only task in trying to control these allegedly meaningless symptoms, instead of trying to understand them.

    Thanks for understanding!

  • BTW: Even if your post looks at it from a different angle than mine, I think they add to each other, not exclude or contradict each other.