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A Stressed Brain Is A Useless Brain

“Stress can destroy much more than just physical health. Too often, it eats away at our hope, belief and faith.” Charles F. Glassman

Stress happens, and that’s not always bad. Starting a new job or getting married can both be happy things, but they also can be really stressful. There are some kinds of stress that just don’t seem to go away though, like the feeling that you’re drowning in work, but still perpetually worried about making ends meet. If you deal with a lot of stress every day, for months or years on end, then stress doesn’t just feel awful, it actually causes you physical harm and more. Psychologists call any event or situation that puts pressure or threatens your well-being a stressor while stress refers to your psychological and physical reactions.

When stressors are repeated or continuous, that’s chronic stress. Things like abusive relationships, living in poverty, and being discriminated against have all been shown to cause chronic stress and that psychological anguish takes a toll physically. When you experience acute stress, your body activates a system called HPA Axis (Hypothalamic – pituitary – adrenocortical Axis). It starts deep in your brain, in the limbic system also called emotional brain, the part responsible for a lot of your automatic emotional reactions, among other things. There, a region called hypothalamus releases hormones that start a whole chain of more hormones being released. First by your pituitary gland, and then by your adrenal glands, which release a bunch of adrenaline and cortisol into your blood stream and those two hormones trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response. They boost physical activity by increasing your blood sugar and blood flow to your muscles and increase your metabolism at the same time. The idea is that the physical boost helps you fight the stressor or run away.

The same system, HPA Axis, is activated by chronic stress, but things get a bit complicated. Researchers have found that people under some kind of chronic stress have perpetual high cortisol levels, as if their HPA Axis is running constantly. Having this system, HPA Axis, running all the time is a serious problem. People under chronic stress are at higher risk for all kinds of ailments like heart-disease, autoimmune disease and mental disorders like anxiety and depression.

In response to a stressor, increasing cortisol levels paired with a boost of adrenaline can literally paralyze the brain’s critical abilities. In this stressed state, we no longer focus on the task at hand, but instead we shift our focus and attention to the stressor which results in sub-par performance of our task. In addition to how we respond, prolonged stressful states can actually negatively affect the way we learn and intake information. Furthermore, stress lowers our body’s ability to fight off illness because our immune systems weaken with our hormonal surges. There are many managers that are known for saying, “Leave your problems outside of the company’s premises, we don’t want your problems here!” This is so sad because it shows how ignorant these managers are. These are the topics I speak on as  neuroleadership speaker, to educate executives and business leaders on how they have a power to build or destroy those they lead.

Well, whether you’re an entry level employee or an executive, you’re face to face with stress every single day in the workplace. Stress has trickle-down effect from the very top of our organizations that can permeate the entire culture of a company. There is and always will be constant pressure to improve and achieve our goals. Leaders in organizations should be extremely mindful of stress formation and stress reaction amongst their employees. The pressure of constant improvement coupled with negative outbursts from a leader can be disastrous for employees. Stress, like emotions, is contagious. If the tone of management has become increasingly negative or perceived as hostile, you can rest assure the quality of work will suffer in the long run unless changes are made.  Leaders should make a conscious effort to focus on how they choose to motivate and communicate with their staff.

Just remember that whenever one is faced with a stressor, an event or situation that threatens their well-being, a threat response gets triggered which means the attention moves away from thinking or using your cognitive resources to focusing on the ‘lion’ or threat in front of you. This is the reason why smart people end up doing things that are deemed ‘stupid’ because their pre-frontal cortex which performs the executive functions of the brain gets shut off to give way to the emotional brain to take over and release those hormones to help with ‘fight or flight’ response as a way to deal with the threatening situation. So, now, you understand why a stressed brain is a useless brain.

Veli Ndaba is a Neuro-Conscious Leadership Speaker and Trainer, Life & Business Coach, Motivational Speaker and Author of four books (You Are Born to Win, Your Dream is Calling You and SWITCH ON! And Set Your Soul On Fire!), Newspaper Columnist and Entrepreneur. To book him to speak at your next event or to help you and your team unleash your greatness, contact him on, or +27 83 304 9773