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  • Dr. Eric Rooker

Feeling Dumber? You Might be Stressed

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It's 5 pm after a day of endless calls and demanding clients.

Your kids are asking what's for supper. Your spouse wants a decision about that landscaping. You want a shower and a cold brew.

Then the phone rings, yet another emergency!

You rush out of the house, leaving crying kids, the landscaping, and your phone behind. You've experienced your first mental lapse of what will be a very long night.

Stress makes you dumber. Period.

Our brain contains three different regions that determine our current mental state.

The brain stem mitigates autonomic or autonomous inputs and outputs such as respiration, heart rate, visceral and somatic pain, as well as GI function.

The limbic system processes stimuli, regulates pituitary function, controls emotion and determines fight or flight responses.

The cortical system, including the prefrontal cortex or PFC, controls conscious thought, mindfulness, language, and processing.

These three systems operate within a complex network of electrical and chemical checks and balances.

In the case of your stressful night, we can see a vicious cycle building within this brain physiology. The beginning of dysregulation within this system. An imbalance within the two signaling methods that control your brain's function.

Vastly simplified, our brain processes in two directions: bottom-up and top-down.

In the case of "bottom-up" stimuli, stressors such as your emergency call trigger the limbic system which can take stressor stimuli in from the brainstem and create learned or habitual reaction to the stimuli.

This reaction is then sent to the cortex in the form of electrical and chemical responses. These chemicals then down regulate cortical neural activity. Replacing conscious processing of stressors in favor of more habitual reactions to them.

This is how we get a flight or fight response and begin to feel flustered or anxious when challenged.

This is how you forget your phone at home while you rushed away to that emergency.

On the other hand, advantageous autonomous responses are controlled from the "top down" by the cortex.

These responses downregulate the limbic system's secretion of glucocorticoids and even alter the brainstem’s autonomic signaling. Allowing for conscious control of our most basic physiologic functions.

In ideal situations the cortex can take-on “appropriate” levels of stress responsive hormones and use them to elevate its function. Preserving and even elevating critical thinking functions. This results in improved neurological processing and stronger connections within the cortical matter in the long term.

Together these two overarching pathways create a complex system of checks and balances.

This works great until the inciting stressor overcomes the cortex’s ability to balance the limbic systems signaling.

Our brains have a limited amount of working memory that each of these three areas can pull from.

Back at your emergency you pull into your clients driveway you notice no lights on in the barn.

No one is there to help. You reach for your phone only to realize it's sitting on the counter at home. Internally, you can feel your blood pressure rise and your frustration overflowing. It's not going to be a good night.

When stressed, our brain seeks to utilize its limited resources in the most effective way.

This means that the brain begins to shift blood flow to prepare us for action. A natural and necessary response from an evolutionary perspective. The shift allows us to prepare for using this memory to aid our fight or flight centers also known as the limbic system.

However, these resources must come from somewhere.

That somewhere is the PFC. An unfortunate side effect is the downregulation of "top-down" control and upregulation of "bottom-up" control. The result? Individuals who feel out of control of their stressor. Increasing the chance, they experience impaired performance of higher level PFC functions and unregulated inputs from the limbic system.

The resultant emotional outputs from the limbic system erode our intelligence quotient or IQ. This occurs via a complex and less understood interaction between IQ and emotional intelligence.

The end result being a lower, functional IQ, in that stressful moment.

It's 30 minutes later on your farm. You've found a light switch, the cow, and a head lock. Even better, the owner just walked through the door. The first words out of his mouth are, "You don’t have that calf out yet?"

You manage to contain the sarcastic response and work silently on the head back calving before you.

But the darn thing just won’t come around.

Over the next hour, with a lot of sweat and four letter words under your breath, you try fruitlessly to get the calf out. You keep thinking about all the things waiting for you at home. Just wanting to get the call done.

But nothing is working. An hour and a half later you settle for a C-section on a now exhausted uterus. It goes about as well as you expect. The cherry on top of the hot mess that has been this stressful night.

As you drive home you begin to calm down and realize your errors.

First, you could have called ahead to have her locked up. This would mean you realized you didn't have your phone sooner. With the added benefit of not having to catch the cow yourself.

Second, you realize the neck was completely fused with some angular deformities in the calf. Something you ID right away. It was never coming out the normal way. But in your stressed state you were determined to avoid a C-section to get back to the mess you left at home sooner.

Third, you realize you may have damaged the doctor-client relationship with this individual. Your flustered state of stress and anger likely didn't do it any good at the very least.

The stress effect culminates in a night you cannot wait to forget.

How do we begin to control the impacts of our stress?

Stress is an unavoidable consequence of sentient life.

We all have and will continue to experience it.

The act of managing stress requires us to assume some responsibility for controlling our conscious creative thought and critical thinking. This means putting in place measures that protect "top-down" PFC driven functioning.

As the conscious control portion of our brain, the PFC allows us to appraise a situation rather than to simply react to stressful stimuli.

The good news? The PFC can be trained to become more resilient to stressors by becoming more emotionally intelligent.

Emotional intelligence or EQ is our capacity to be aware of, control, and express our emotions in constructive ways. EQ protects "top-down" stimuli regulation while decreasing the impact of "bottom-up" stimuli. Resulting in a "smarter" you, even in a stressful situation.

So how do we build EQ?

EQ can be a complex habit to build. It can take years to master and moments to lose.

However, some of the best methods for regulation of EQ can be accomplished in as little as a minute.

The EQ control method I teach at Operators to Owners is called a Micro Break. Essentially, it's a 30 second to 1-minute mental check-in. I provide my veterinary high performer with an alert watch that vibrates every hour. When this watch vibrates it triggers a four step process:

First, we start with three deep breaths. Getting them to return to conscious neural processes.

Second, they ask themselves; "What emotion am I feeling right now?"

Third, they follow this up with a self-posed question, "Why am I feeling that?"

And then conclude by choosing to ignore or embrace the current emotional state by asking, “Do I want to feel this emotion right now?"

Many times, stress sneaks up on us. We don’t even realize it until it's arrived. By refocusing on our breath we take back control from our "bottom-up" stimuli and introduce "top-down" control to the system.

This allows the individual to consciously ID their current feelings, allowing them to choose to feel them or not. Then they begin to understand why those feelings exist and how to modulate them. Helping them upregulate their PFC functioning.

Keeping them "smart" even in the most stressful situations.

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