An intriguing piece in the April Scientific American describes how even mild stress can inhibit conscious self-control. (Find a summary here; to read the entire article requires a subscription.)
According to Yale professors Amy Arnsten, Caryolyn Mazure and Rajita Sinha, stress does more to us than trigger hormones that drive the fight or flight response. It also messes with our higher order brain center, the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that keeps us from eating that extra cookie, reminds us that it’s time to exercise, helps us bite our tongue so that we don’t yell at the boss.
Stress apparently bumps high level control from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and other earlier evolved parts of the brain, Arnsten, Mazure and Sinha say. So those higher-order decision-making functions drop into the part of the brain where binging seems like a good idea.
My job as a reporter has plenty of stress, some of it mild, some of it more intense. Of course, it’s not as stressful as many other jobs — police work, firefighting, soldiering, those are serious blink-and-you-or-others-could-die stressful. But journalism stress is nothing to be sneezed at. It’s pretty relentless, and sometimes the stakes are high.
Given that, my current weaknesses — the overeating, the excess drinking, the lost weekends as a couch potato — all start making some kinds of sense.
It also helps me understand why sometimes when I’m covering a night meeting — where a school board is making a decision at 8 p.m., and I have to write a cogent story about it by a 10 p.m. deadline — I sometimes just freeze up for several minutes, my brain a blank, and its difficult to even get the first sentence down on the screen.
The authors refer to this weakened state of the prefrontal cortex under stress as a “devastating handicap in circumstances where we need to engage in complex decision-making.”
I wonder if knowing this will help me be more resilient, and I wonder if there is a cumulative effect where years in this stressful biz make it harder to keep my PC engaged and doing its higher-order thing.