Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Is being a stress junkie affecting your concentration?

The link between stress and concentration is an interesting one, and it’s worth taking a moment or two to understand what happens in your body and brain to prevent concentration when you’re stressed.

Confronted by circumstances we see as threatening in some way, our brain short-circuits conscious thought to 'red alert' mode. This automatic response is created by the amygdala, an almond shaped gland located deep within the mid-brain – and is a great response when faced with a sabre-toothed tiger, but not so useful when you discover your tax return has exceeded its return-by date.

We talk about something being gut-wrenching for a reason. The gut is also affected by the 'fight or flight' hormones generated in response to the amygdala’s red alert because, God knows, you’re not going to have time to eat when running for your life. Besides, you are going to need the blood supply concentrated in your legs rather than your stomach in order to get away fast, and your heart will need to pound to get it there. Plus which, your breathing rate rises to get that additional oxygen you’re going to need into your lungs. All of which is happening rather unnecessarily while you are sitting at your desk with those stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol flooding your body and compounding your panic further. Know the feeling?

Not only that, but when we get into long-term patterns of stress, it somehow re-sets our stress thermostat and it takes less to set off our red alert reaction. And, because we also have amazing powers of adaptation, we adapt to these constant, over-elevated levels of stress hormones as far as we can. It begins to feel 'normal' to be functioning in a constant state of stress. In fact, we can become almost addicted to it and seek to recreate the apparent comfort this known state creates, by which time we fit the label: stress junkie.

And while functioning in this way, sleep becomes difficult because those same stress hormones that can power your legs are also designed to keep you wide awake and running away from danger, not chilling out and drifting off happily into the land of Nod. Lack of sleep is itself very stressful. Result: more stress.

Now imagine functioning at full stressed throttle like this for days, weeks, months on end and its effect on your body and mind becomes clear. If you did the same to a high performance car, the phrase 'burn out' might come to mind. Long term stress just isn't sustainable without detriment to health. Great for acute situations where you may need to concentrate your physical and mental prowess to react to danger, stress is hopeless for sustained concentration or for enabling you to focus without the internal distraction of red alert warning signals going off.

Now it becomes clear why concentration, which is aided by a calm, collected mind, becomes tricky when we are stressed. So if you want to concentrate better and benefit from that, look at how to reduce the stress in your life.

Having identified the situation, what can you do? If you’ve been functioning in stress mode for a period of time, it’s hard initially to switch it off. Your body has got used to the feeling, so you may have to be quite deliberate in creating time to readjust, and consciously build in down time, either through non-competitive exercise, meditation or some other physical therapy that helps release you from the physical sensations of stress.

Once you begin to release the body from its grip, it becomes easier to release the mind from stress, improving its ability to concentrate. It may take time, but consciously doing so will pay dividends in terms of physical and mental wellbeing - and concentration.