How Does Stress Affect Your Brain?

You're a smart person. So why, when you're under the most stress, does it seem your brain shuts down and your intelligence disappears?

You know stress causes numerous physical problems and even serious disease. But did you know that prolonged or extreme stress might also impair your mental faculties, leaving you feeling...well, kind of dumb.

Under stress, our body increases levels of cortisol and other hormones. In the short term, this helps you fight real threats (the classic fight-or-flight response). Over time, or in the absence of real life threats, these biological changes disrupt the energy supply to parts of your brain involved with memory and higher level thinking processes, such as logic, analytical ability, and decision-making. Stress turns these critical thinking processes off and replaces them with an oversensitive, heightened emotional state.

Scientists have observed this response in baboons and other highly social animals. And experts specializing in workplace dynamics warn that stress interferes in important relationships with colleagues and individual performance, especially for leaders.

Former professor Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D. says stress impacts leaders' cognitive and emotional abilities and contributes to what he calls Catastrophic Leadership Failures (CLF). CLF occurs when leaders experience enough stress to cause a dramatic drop in their intellectual and emotional intelligence. The result: they don't listen well, they over-analyze things, flip-flop, and generally, make reactive rather than well-considered decisions.

In fact, Dr. Steven Stein, an expert in emotional intelligence, says emotional intelligence—or the ability to sense other's feelings, convey your own feelings, and effectively communicate—is more important than IQ (intelligence). He, too, says stress harms workers by affecting their decision-making skills, increasing mistakes, lowering productivity, interfering in workplace relationships, and causing workers to ignore important cues in others.

Fortunately, you can reverse these stress-related effects, and, by boosting your overall emotional intelligence, manage stress more effectively.

To help you increase your emotional intelligence, experts recommend you learn to assess the world properly. Instead of experiencing stress because you have unrealistic demands and expectations from the world, correctly observe, analyze, and assess people, situations, and the environment. Take an inward, rather than an outward view, by observing what you have, without focusing on what you don't have.

Learning effective stress management techniques will also help you stay focused and in control, regardless of the challenges you face.

The world is stressful and many things are beyond our control. However, you can take steps to prevent stress from making you feel dumb.


Cullen, Lisa. "Stress makes you stupid." Time Magazine. Web. 6 August 2007.

Thompson, Henry L., Ph.D. "Research Uncovers Causes of Catastrophic Leadership Failure." Web. 2007.,%20Emotional%20Intelligence%20and%20Leader%20Performance.html

Jain, Gautam. "Stress and the Mind." Medscape Medical News. Web. 5 July 2007. "Five Key Skills for Raising Your Emotional Intelligence." Web.

Angier, Natalie. "Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop." Web. 17 August 2009.