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How Stress Affects our Thinking Patterns

  Written by Kerry Watts

There is something deeply unsettling about noticing a good friend behaving completely out of character. When you see someone who you are used to acting in one way seemingly have a 180 degree shift in their personality, it can – and should be – a true cause for concern.

This recently happened to a London registered nurse (RN) called Sarah. She was speaking with her fellow RN and friend Brandon outside of the pub on a sunny Friday afternoon, and noticed that he did not seem like himself at all. Despite the promising weekend weather ahead and a relatively calm day on the ward, he seemed jittery and nervous. Brandon was normally chilled out and easygoing, with a dry sense of humour and a willingness to lend an ear whenever she had a problem. However, on this particular evening he was talking a mile a minute and was making strange remarks.

"Brandon is normally fun, but he keeps things pretty professional," recounted Sarah, "but on this night he was over-sharing personal details and seemed almost manic. I started to feel worried."

The more that Sarah spoke to Brandon, she started to get a sense of what might be going on with him. While at first she wondered if she was witnessing him have a bipolar episode, she soon realised that he was simply extremely stressed. While that day at work had been rather relaxed, they had been short staffed lately. She also knew that Brandon was having problems with his wife, and his mother in law, in the mid stages of Alzheimer's, was living with them. On top of that, his teenaged son was having trouble at school, and had been caught with MDMA pills at school.

"All of a sudden I realised that I was witnessing Brandon dealing with an extreme level of stress. I let it go that evening – the pub wasn't the place to bring it up – but I pulled him aside at work the following week and told him about my worries. At first he was a little bit defensive, but then he seemed relieved that I had brought it up with him."

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 Research shows that stress affects the way we think and behave

Stress can be a very positive thing, helping the body and mind to deal with difficult situations. Without it, most of the time we would not be aware of situations that need to be dealt with, and perform some action.

That said, over time the stress hormone cortisol can build up in the brain and start to make long-term changes. Cortisol is an important hormone that helps to restore balance after something stressful occurs, as well as regulating blood sugar levels and aiding in memory production.

Ideally, when you experience a stressful event, your body will release some cortisol and in order to help you overcome the situation, handle the problem, and then get back to normal.

These are all examples of Cortisol's positive effects, but when you begin to experience chronic stress, your body will start to produce more cortisol than it can actually use.

Too much cortisol can lead to some nasty problems, including disrupting synapses, reducing the size of the prefrontal cortex, and even killing brain cells.

The result? An inability to socialise normally, an urge to avoid interacting with others, and changes to one's personality. You can see this time and time again – when someone is going through a stressful or traumatic period in their life, they tend to pull away from their loved ones.

When they do socialise, they might seem dazed, frantic or slightly ‘off.' This is exactly what Sarah experienced with Brandon that evening at the pub.

Stress management techniques can make a huge difference

After speaking with Sarah, Brandon took a hard look at what was going on in his life, and realised that the stress was indeed taking a big toll on him. He started a plan to manage some of the external factors (getting more help from the council with his mother in law, attending family counselling with his wife and son). He spoke to his union rep in order to ensure that his workload (and Sarah's!) was not unfairly loaded, and that a high priority was placed on filling the vacant position on their team.

In addition to this, he began to practice 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation each day before work, cut down on drinking, and began playing squash twice per week at a local gym.

Sarah noticed a big difference before long – Brandon was back to his old easygoing self, but with a renewed sense of calm and positivity. No more manic episodes, no more jittery behaviour. Brandon himself expressed a great deal of gratitude towards Sarah, and thanked her for her frankness.

"Without Sarah pulling me aside and sharing her concerns, I might not have realised that I was in such a bad state with stress. My marriage would have continued to deteriorate, and I wouldn't have the extra help I need both at home with my mum in law, or at work on the ward. I'm also in much better shape since I cut down on the lager and hit the squash court instead."

If any of this sounds familiar, you can see that you are not alone. Take control of your stress levels and start taking steps to get back to normal.

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