The cognitive effects of stress

Stress affects our ability to think clearly, but there are things we can do to help ourselves. Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Stress is pressure, and pressure can disrupt any system, including our mental equilibrium.  When we are stressed, our brains find it harder to function.  We find it harder to process what we see and hear (our inputs), and we also find it harder to judge what to say and do (our outputs).  More than that, our inner imagination gets distorted, so that we can spiral out of control.


As an example, imagine we are at work, when someone comes up to us and starts shouting in our face.  This is a stressor.  The shouting dramatically affects our ability to process anything else that we see and hear, and we may become momentarily speechless, not knowing at all what to say.  Even when the shouting subsides, we may find it hard to get control of our thoughts.


Stress can also be generated from internal pressure – inner conflict.  We do not need other people to shout at us – we seem to be quite good at shouting at ourselves.  The effects are the same.  In this way, someone can be suffering from anxiety, even though we may not be able to see any obvious external stressors.

Post-traumatic stress is another example of inner pressure, where it may not be obvious to others what is causing our stress response.


Psychologically, these are some of the cognitive effects of stress:

  • Working memory (our ability to hold and manipulate data and patterns) is affected, so we are less able to multitask, or even do single tasks.
  • Attention is disrupted, so that we cannot fully take in what we are experiencing.
  • Our responses are affected, so that we can’t as easily control what we say and do back to people.  This means that stress can cause social problems for us.
  • We can’t think as flexibly, meaning that our actions don’t flow as well, and we are more likely to slow down or seize up when faced with activities or problems.


What can we do to reduce these effects of stress?

  1. We can slow down, and use external memory aids such as diaries, lists and notice boards.  Anxiety sufferers can find making a list immensely soothing.
  2. We can use meditative techniques to focus our attention on one thing at a time.  Although meditation is a long-term practice, similar effects can be achieved in the short term through watching an engaging film, performing an absorbing task, or engaging in a conversation with a good listener.
  3. We can remove ourselves from difficult social situations for the time being, reducing the risk of saying or doing the wrong thing.
  4. We can stop trying to do a lot at once, and accept that, for a while, attention to a single, easy task is better matched to our capacity.

In short, when stressed:

  1. Use a written schedule
  2. Perform only simple, focused activities
  3. Reduce challenging social contact
  4. Do one easy thing at a time