Even mild stress may harm your brain functions, study shows

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The notion that a bit of stress makes people perform better has been baked into our everyday lives.

In a new study, researchers found that it might not be so good for us after all.

They found that even mild stress may harm most people’s executive functions—mental skills such as self-control, focused attention, working memory, and problem-solving.

The finding suggests that a positive effect of stress is true only for a subset of people and even then, only if the stress is extremely mild.

The research was conducted by a team at the University of British Columbia.

In the study, the team placed 140 young adults under mild stress by having them take computerized cognitive tests while a male and female staff member stood behind them—one to participants’ right and one to their left—and watched their performance, seemingly judging it but saying nothing.

The team found that even with this small amount of stress, executive functions were impaired.

While there was a subset of people with a specific form of a gene whose executive functions improved, other investigators who imposed slightly more stress found no benefit to that group from stress.

This suggests the bandwidth for stress having a positive effect is very narrow.

The team says feeling stressed because you are feeling ashamed or embarrassed, or worried about doing well in the eyes of others, does not appear to boost your executive functions.

If you want to be able to solve problems, you need to use self-control or logical reason, then you probably want to minimize your stress.

When it comes to reducing stress levels, the team suggests trying some of these strategies:

Taking deep breaths

Spending time in nature

Focusing on the present moment instead of worrying about the future or regrets about the past

Connecting with others, if only over Zoom or Facetime

Exercise in almost any form, especially mindfulness practices such as a martial art, t’ai chi, or yoga

Spend time with animals or get a pet (for example, studies have shown that a dog in the classroom helps reduce stress and improve children’s attention and learning)

One author of the study is UBC neuroscientist Dr. Adele Diamond.

The study is published in Cerebral Cortex.

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