Have you ever found yourself in the middle of a highly stressful moment and thought “What the hell has happened to my brain?” “Why can’t I function?” “Why can’t I think straight?” “Why am I forgetting things that usually come second nature?” In those moments it can feel like the engine is running but it’s not turning over. No matter how hard you rev and push the engine, you don’t seem to be able to move efficiently or effectively.
Today we are talking about: WHY DOESN’T MY BRAIN SEEM TO FUNCTION WHEN I AM STRESSED? Understanding the neuroscience of stress and how it affects our brain.
So here is something you may not know about me: I LOVE neuroscience. I dream of one day becoming a Neuroscientist or continuing my studies to become a Neuropsychologist because I absolutely LOVE to understand WHY we do the things we do, the mechanics of our brain and how it influences our behavior.
So I am going to explain here WHY we all feel quite ineffectual when we are experiencing stress. Before I do that though, I want to explain what I mean by stress in this context.
Stress can be anything that gives our nervous system a jolt. It could be that we are actually experiencing stress in the obvious way we know it (with deadlines or pressure). It could also be that we are experiencing sadness, anger, shock, disbelief or other strong emotions that hijack our nervous system. Stress could occur as a result of us rushing around, feeling pressure, having too many expectations of ourselves. It could be the result of having had an argument with a partner, a friend or one of the kids. It could happen when we open up an email or receive news that we are rattled by.
Stress can look like a lot of things but the common thread is that it has an effect on our nervous system.
Here comes the brainy bit…
So when we experience stress of some sort, our brain releases cortisol – a stress hormone. This cortisol impacts the functioning of our brain in 4 key ways that directly and instantly impact how we experience ourselves:
1) the part of our brain that stores memory
This is why we can experience traumatic memory when we have faced a trauma that then needs some trauma work and reprocessing (more on this on another email).
2) It impacts the part of the brain that regulates emotion
This is why we can either become more reactive than usual or why we may start to feel “emotionally numb.”
3) It impacts the part of the brain that helps us notice what our body is doing (brain/body connection). This means we can either feel hyper-sensitized and all our senses become heightened, or we can feel separate from our body entirely.
4) It impacts our frontal cortex which manages our capacity to problem solve, rationalize, make sense of things, recall information, sequence tasks.
The means that we essentially can feel like our brain is “off-line” and the processing capabilities are unplugged.
When we are flooded in cortisol, we lose functionality of parts of our brain AND we feel dysregulated. This is when we do and say stuff we don’t mean – because we are unplugged from that front part of our brain that enables us to problem solve, get a sense of perspective, make sense of things, rationalise and be RESPONS-ible.
Yay! I am glad you asked because herein lies the beautiful part. The part that makes me fall in love with neuroscience and marvel at the majesty of our human design…
When we turn our attention to activities and experiences that bring us into contact with one of our 5 senses, we help calm the stress response in our body.
When we turn our attention to focus on noticing the breath moving in and out of our bodies, we are dialing down our own nervous system.Stress is experienced in the body and dysregulates the body AND to come back to ourselves and our body is how we heal and recover ourselves. Our five senses and our breath are like 6 anchors back to wellness and feeling grounded again.
This helps snap our untamed monkey mind back to the present. It takes us out of the triggering thoughts or worries and snaps us back to the moment we are in.
Being with our senses means our brain is paying attention again to what is happening in the body in real time. This brings the nervous system back under control and as the nervous system starts to regulate once more, the other faculties of our brain plug back in once more too.
I am in awe of this incredible machine that is our body. We have so much capacity for healing and rebalancing ourselves. The more I read about our brain, the more blown away I become. The more intelligence I discover about how our brain actually functions and can recalibrate itself, the more comforted I feel that there really is some greater, grander design in our world and that it seems we hardly even scratch the surface of knowing what we are truly capable of creating.
If the brain fascinates you too, a mind-blowing book that I highly recommend is The Brain That Changes Itself by Normal Doidge. If you end up reading it, let me know. I would LOVE to hear what you think.
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