Optimizing Mental Efficiency and Physical Performance During Times of Stress

Posted in: April 26, 2019 By: Bernadette Marie Wilson

Are you working yourself to exhaustion and with diminishing returns?

Most of us have read numerous articles and studies documenting the damages of stress and burnout. Despite knowing this information, why do we continue to overwork ourselves, only to suffer the damaging results of stress – poor physical and mental health, along with damage to our relationships? 

The answer lies in who we are as humans. It is in our humanity, our need to survive that pushes us to do more. Our brain automatically reacts to positive and negative stressors, often without our conscious awareness. Neurologically, when we are faced with a tough situation – a demanding boss expecting a project to be delivered on a short timeline, negotiating the waters of an employee conflict, facing the perils of starting a new business, our natural instinct is to work harder on all of our competing priorities, in an effort to overcome the immediate stress. This is a useful and successful short term strategy.  Our brains and our bodies can endure the neuroendocrine surge for a brief period. However, after a protracted period of stress our brain, and bodies, reach a tipping point of exhaustion.  

Clues that you are reaching a life stress tipping point called burnout

Our past histories, physical, mental and cultural conditioning give some of us the ability to endure stressful occurrences longer than others. Many successful individuals have mastered techniques to reorganize their thoughts quickly. They remain calm and focused through negotiation or managing the outcomes of high-risk deals with finesse.  

Regardless, if you are one of these individuals or know one of these “super leaders,” if left unchecked, to a protracted exposure of adrenaline rush, our “fight or flight” response can get the best of us. Without self-awareness we can end up wandering into the zone known as burnout. Our physical health, mental performance, and relationships can suffer from the fallout of these prolonged periods of stress. 

Here’s where relaxing techniques and habits such as a consistent mediation practice, deep breathing, or placing yourself into states of gratitude and positivity can help your brain to reorganize and reenter a state of calm and rejuvenation.  

“Three things are essential to achieve anything worthwhile: Hard work, persistence, and common sense.” – Thomas A. Edison

I am not professing to avoid hard work. It is in this hard work that we find success. However, if you are driven to work for too long a period of time, burnout will begin.  When your life choices or conditions require you to enter a high-performance state, taking intermittent breaks will help rejuvenate your brain and allow you to return to the task with increased vigor, creativity and determination.

How do you know when you hit the point where a break is beneficial? 

As stated by Thomas Edison – “common sense.” When feelings such as fear, anger, boredom begin to dominate your thoughts or manifest in physical symptoms that interrupt your productivity.  You can set a timer and take a break every hour or notice when strong emotions begin to surface. The goal is to recognize these feelings early and often as they occur, then take a pleasurable break –take a short walk, stretch for a few moments, and breath!  

Using Stress to Your Advantage

Stress is needed and can be a positive driver. We use stress to motivate us to perform, to kick start our brain’s neurological drive system. When we perceive a stressor, our system releases hormones including cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine. These hormones send neurological signals that increase in blood pressure and our heart rate, and kick start our drive. Recall a recent time when you had to give a presentation in front of a group.  Most likely before you gave your speech you experienced a physical change in your breathing and perhaps had the twinge of butterflies. Your mind was focused on your speech and the audience (vs thinking about you next meeting of the day). Furthermore, to avoid feelings of nervousness and embarrassment, you did the “work” of preparation beforehand.  The thought of a stressful situation motivated you to reach your potential. 

We also use stress to keep us enthusiastic about reaching the finish line of our goals.  A good practice is to set multiple, short term,  achievable milestones.  As we strive for a goal that is in near sight we have some level of stress, but it is manageable.  Once we reach the milestone, we are rewarded. Upon success, we are flooded with natural feel-good hormones, neurochemicals, and neurotransmitters (i.e., endorphins, dopamine,  serotonin, and oxytocin.). 

Implementing habits…

such a mindful practice, taking small pleasure breaks through day, and setting reward milestones will provide the needed edge on stress. Knowing when we are approaching a critical mass, i.e. “tipping point” in our work and life stressors is a crucial to deploying corrective actions that will lead to optimizing our physical and mental health and over-all cognitive performance.