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Could Stress Be the Reason You Feel Like Crap?

Read on to find out what this clinical psychologist and former CEO has to say about the effects of stress on your ability to perform and think like a boss.

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The following excerpt is from Dr. Nadine Greiner’s book Stress-Less Leadership. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Apple Books | IndieBound

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The effects of stress can be vast and come in many different flavors. They can be grouped into four primary buckets: cognitive, emotional, physical, and behavioral effects.

Cognitive aspects of stress

Stress can take a heavy toll on your mental processes. In extreme circumstances, there’s a clear link between chronic stress and a greater incidence of psychiatric disorders. Stress has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. It’s even been shown to reduce the size of the brain.

Let’s take a look at some of the specific ways stress impairs your ability to perform at your top level:

Mental slowdown. Mental slowdown is a common cognitive effect of stress. It slows down your brain’s processing speed, meaning it takes you longer to process new information, make decisions, and interact with work colleagues. You may become frustrated by your lower levels of productivity, which may result in a loss of enjoyment at work. Even the brightest leaders can fall victim to mental slowdown.

Difficulty concentrating. Concentration is challenging even when you’re at your best -- stress only adds to the fire. When you struggle to concentrate, you can’t focus on tasks that need to be completed, you’re easily distracted, your self-esteem erodes and you waste precious time. Solving problems becomes impossible, conversations become disjointed, and teamwork evades us.

Feeling overwhelmed. People feel overwhelmed when they’re in a stressful situation that just becomes too much for them to deal with. Your brain may start to feel foggy. You may feel paralyzed, have difficulty thinking clearly, or react rashly to situations. It becomes hard to see a way out or a way through your problems.

Memory loss or impairment. Stress takes an especially heavy toll on your memory. Individuals facing stress often find themselves becoming forgetful. For leaders especially, this should be concerning. After all, the health of your company depends on your judgment and vision.

Related: Should You or Should You Not Vent About Your Stress?

Emotional aspects of stress

Stress can also affect your emotions. You’ll often experience changes to your personality, causing you to become more irritable or more likely to feel depressed. It can feel like you’re riding a roller coaster. And right at the top of the list is irritability.

Irritability. Irritability is closely associated with stress. When you feel irritable, you feel agitated and become upset easily. In the workplace, irritability can cause you to react impulsively or lash out at others, which can be perceived as bullying or harassment.

Anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling of worry most commonly associated with uncertain events. Often, people fear they’ll experience the worst. Anxiety can impede cognitive functions, making it difficult to do tasks effectively. Palpitations, tremors, and a feeling of tightening in the chest can be physical manifestations of this feeling.

Lack of motivation. Lack of motivation is a common symptom of a negative stress reaction. Even the simplest tasks can feel challenging. Getting to the root of your stress can help you re-engage and motivate yourself to perform at your best.

Helplessness. Too much stress can make you feel helpless, which can lead to inaction and result in low levels of creativity and innovation. You can feel so helpless that you stop trying. This erodes your self-confidence, optimism, and sense of belonging.

Depression. Depression is a serious mood disorder that results in a severe, prolonged feeling of sadness and a loss of self-esteem and hope. It also tends to cause a loss of interest in daily activities, including work. Ultimately, depression can lead to self-harm or suicide, which is on the rise.

Physical aspects of stress

Stress also causes a very palpable physical reaction. It can feel like you’ve been run over by a truck. Your energy levels may take a nosedive. The physical effects of stress can be felt head to toe in the following ways:

  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Digestive problems
  • Diabetes
  • Strokes
  • Heart disease
  • Heart attacks
  • Lowered immune response

Related: 4 Steps to Building a Board of Directors That Lessens Your Stress

Behavioral aspects of stress

Stress has a significant influence on behavior. When you’re highly stressed, your cognitive resources are so depleted that you are no longer able to make logical and sound decisions. You often don’t feel or act like yourself.

Social withdrawal. Social withdrawal is strongly connected to anxiety and depression. When you feel anxious or depressed, you often retreat from others. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good. When you’re depressed, the comfort and support of others can be the best medicine.

Sleep deprivation. Stress can bring about an imbalance in the body’s hormonal system, leading to the release of stimulating hormones such as cortisol. These hormones can cause sleep disturbances. The impact on people can be significant, resulting in irritability, lost productivity, and increased stress. Sleep impairment is especially harmful to your decision-making skills and causes you to become more easily distracted, less creative, and less able to draw links between information.

Overeating. Stress raises cortisol levels, which in turn, elevate your insulin levels. The insulin causes your blood sugar levels to drop, making you crave sugary, fatty foods. The increased anxiety associated with stress commonly leads to mindless eating and can also interfere with your brain’s reward system and cause you to crave “comfort foods” such as ice cream or pizza. Overeating also leads to being overweight, which can bring its own health and self-esteem challenges.

Drug or alcohol abuse. You’ve already learned about stress’s harmful cognitive effects. When people are stressed, they tend to be more likely to give in to urges and impulses. They often resort to using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, but the effects of this decision can result in long-term harm.

Impulsive or repetitive behaviors. We’ve already noted that stress can cause obsessive thoughts that lead to anxiety. This obsession also tends to result in impulsive or repetitive behaviors such as gambling, handwashing, counting, magical thinking, and other ritualistic actions. Often there is no rhyme or reason to the behaviors; they simply function as a type of coping mechanism.

Nadine Greiner, Ph.D.

Written By

Entrepreneur Leadership Network VIP

Dr. Nadine Greiner, Ph.D. is a Human Resources executive. Her book, 'Stress-Less Leadership: How to Lead in Business and Life,' was published by Entrepreneur Press. She believes that the world needs great leaders and has dedicated her career to helping them.