Does stress make us stupid? And, What you can do about it.

Does stress make us stupid? And, What you can do about it.

In our current society, everybody seems to be in a hurry and stressed out most of the time. Chronic stress and burnout are on the rise, and we all know that chronic stress can have adverse effects on our health and quality of life. Nevertheless, stress is actually a useful and necessary survival mechanism of the body. This mechanism’s function is to help you survive dangerous and threatening situations by releasing hormones that ultimately allow you to utilize more energy, focus on the threat, and put your body in a general state of readiness. Even though these effects seem positive, they are very demanding on the body, and this state cannot be maintained indefinitely [1].

Moreover, being stressed is not conducive to performing cognitive tasks or making optimal decisions [2]. When we experience stress, our body thinks that we are in actual physical danger, which is why stress prepares our bodies for physical challenges during stress. Moreover, under stress, our cognitive mode shifts from an analytical and slow processing mode to a faster mode that relies heavily on habits and mental shortcuts. The point of this is that during dangerous situations, it is often much better to make a mediocre decision quickly, then it is to contemplate your next move while you are being chewed on by a predator. This quicker processing, however, comes at the cost of being foolish sometimes, especially in situations that are not physically dangerous, but where we need to deal with the situation rationally.

Unfortunately, we are stressed the most at times when we need to perform the best cognitively. For example, during exams, talks, and presentations. So, it would be nice if there was a way to reduce stress so that we could perform at our best every time we needed to. Meditation might be the solution here because it has been shown to reduce stress and is used in clinical settings in the form of meditation-based stress reduction programs [3][4]. If meditation actually could increase cognitive performance by reducing stress, this would allow for a very easy application. Every time that you are stressed and need to perform well, you could simply withdraw for a couple of minutes and meditate.

But, because this sounds too good to be true, we, as a research group, wanted to test if meditation can actually improve performances on cognitive tasks by reducing stress. The results are still pending, but we will keep you updated.

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