Stress versus Output

by Ted Cleaver

Stress is by far the most detrimental force in my life. It takes hold of you and initiates a vicious cycle. The more stress I experience, usually due to deadlines piling up, the less output I produce AND the less stress-relieving activities I engage in. This sounds more dramatic than it is, however a state of being where stress is never an issue to me, is analogous to what an island retreat with like-minded folk must be for a nudist: Exactly where you’d want to be.

There are many constructive ways to deal with stress, ranging from hands-on techniques to mental conditioning. Eat chocolate, do sports, make a realistic overview of your agenda, or meditate; all are excellent ways to reduce stress levels. Being the inquisitive person I am, the why and how are of greater interest to me. Why does stress cause so much trouble, and why does it persist to be a problem?

The cause for stress in my case is obvious, deadlines. A more general reason, one applicable to most people, is the sheer volume of commitments we make. Balancing family life, social circles, work, learning, cultural activities, etc. is a challenging task. Whatever the trigger may be, the result is that your brain is flooded with stress hormones. A mild dosage may be helpful in getting stuff done, and a high dosage is perfectly appropriate in a threatening situation. One effect of stress hormones is that your sympathic nervous system goes into fight or flight mode. Simultaneously, adrenalin floods your brain and several functions, such as your immune system, are shut off temporarily. This response is a safeguard that signals you when to get out of harm’s way and provides the state of alertness necessary to do so. It is paramount however to return back to a normal state of being fast. The negative effects of high concentrations of cortisol in your brain are no joke.
Even when the trigger for releasing stress hormones was not as dire as a threatening situation, the cause and effects are similar. You are suffering from chemically induced imbalance in your nervous system. Stress hormones affect your metabolic functions longer than they should, unnecessarily prolonging the imbalance. In this state, brain cells die. The most cynical aspect of stress is that it kills off cells in your hippocampus, the area in charge of learning and memory, while failure to produce results that require learning and memory is a common source of stress.

Our hippocampi are part of our limbic systems. Next to memory functions, emotions are regulated in the limbic systems. Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller Emotional Intelligence, convincingly argues the detrimental effects of stress on emotion regulation and vice versa. The most visible effect of stress is a bad mood. Since the relation between stress and emotions is not a one-way street, emotional distress likewise causes stress and thereby impedes learning and memory functions. Going back to the unfortunate fact that stress levels remain up for extended periods, dealing with the affliction is even more important.

This is where my problem lies. I don’t really experience adverse effects on memory or learning capacity, as far as I can tell at least. I do however narrow my focus and obsess over a specific goal. In theory, it would be much healthier and more productive, to make a conscious effort to reduce stress. This can be done by recognizing the altered state of being and attempting to regulate it. Or you might simply go for a run and forget your duties for a minute. Perhaps I’ll live a stress-free life some day, for now however the workload and overwhelming amount of things I love to do regularly result in stressful situations. Time to accept it: When it comes to stress I should stop, but I’m not a quitter. Using the insights into the why and how however continually leads to more constructive coping strategies.