Do you think stress and cognitive function are linked? Stress affects your entire body as well as your brain. It has adverse effects on your physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive health.

Stress is considered a natural reaction when a person is under pressure; in the short term, it can provide positive motivation. For instance, it can push you to finish a project or to hit the brakes to avoid an accident. Chronic stress, however, can lead to various physical and mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep problems and more.

When we talk about the cognitive effects of stress, we’re referring to any manner in which stress affects your brain’s ability to complete tasks, both simple and complex. Cognitive skills can include anything from solving problems to memorizing things.


Stress and Cognitive Function are Closely Related


Here are five ways that stress and cognitive function intertwine:




• 2017 research suggests stress can show up cognitively through your memory. Stress can affect your brain in a way that makes you more forgetful than usual or even misremember things.

• This could be because your brain needs to allocate energy to other tasks during times of stress — leading you to absent-mindedly make careless mistakes.

• The way your brain learns and remembers new information could also be affected by stress, according to a 2017 study.


Rigid thinking


• 2018 research claims that stress can also lead to more rigid thinking styles.

• When you’re under stress, you’re more likely to make decisions out of habit. When you’re free of stress, your brain is more flexible, which allows you to make decisions based on your big-picture goals.


Difficulty with concentration

• People who are under a lot of stress often have a hard time with concentration and focus. You might find that you can pay closer attention to the situation that’s causing you stress, but have a hard time concentrating on anything else.

• If you’re highly stressed, you could find your attention wandering, even during important conversations and meetings.

• Problems with focus could become so severe that they start interfering with your functioning at work or home.


Constant worrying

• Stress also affects your thinking, and can cause worries to constantly run through your mind.

• You might notice that when you’re facing high levels of stress, it’s difficult to stop worrying about whatever is causing the stress.

• You could worry about the stressful aspects of work even when you’re not there, or worry about your relationship when you need to be working.


Poor judgment

• Stress can cause you to make poor decisions, even if you typically have good judgment. The cognitive effects of stress could cause you to be more impulsive than usual or simply fail to think decisions through.

• One 2012 study found that participants under stress were significantly less accurate in their professional judgments than the control group (who faced no stressor).

• In a 2019 study, participants in the stress group were less likely to take action in moral dilemmas than the participants in the control group.


New Research on Stress and Cognitive Impairment

A recent study showed that stress was linked to 37 percent higher chance of cognitive issues after 45

People 45 and older who have elevated stress levels have been found to be 37 percent more likely to have cognitive problems, including memory and thinking issues, than those who are not stressed, according to research published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

• For more than a decade, the study followed 24,448 people who also are participants in a long-term, ongoing study on brain health.
• Periodically, the researchers used standardized testing to determine each participant’s cognitive status.
• Their stress level — involving feelings or situations beyond their ability to cope — was self-assessed; about 23 percent of the participants reported high levels of stress.
• This study’s findings add cognitive problems to that list, with the researchers determining that risk for cognitive decline — also known as mild cognitive impairment, or MCI — was greater among the most stressed participants, regardless of age, race or sex.


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