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.