Muriel Cooper
Psychologist in Mornington

Stress, anxiety and depression

 
@DimaBerlin via Twenty20

Stress is the enemy of concentration and focus. Since the onset of the pandemic, we have been exposed to constant stress. No surprise that we're having trouble with focus. Working from home has presented issues of distraction as children, pets and online shopping deliveries grab our attention away from whatever we're trying to concentrate on. However, they are not the main cause of lack of focus during stressful times.

Stress involved the "get up and go" hormone, Adrenaline. But before you can act to fight or flee, you need the energy to do that and that's where cortisol comes in.

Cortisol is the "let's give you the energy to get up and go" hormone that instructs the body to release glucose into the bloodstream. Cortisol also dampens your digestive system (who needs to waste energy digesting food when you need it to fight or run) and affects the immune system the reproductive system (not a good idea to reproduce when you're threatened) and growth processes.

So far, these effects are bad enough, but here's the way cortisol (and Adrenaline) affect your focus.

Like alcohol, Cortisol and Adrenaline cross the blood brain barrier making it hard for the brain to form cognitions, retrieve short term memory and make decisions. There's only one decision your survival brain wants you to make – whether to fight or run. When the crisis is over, the brain needs to dispose of the Adrenaline and Cortisol, but here's the thing. The longer your stress goes on for, the less Adrenaline you produce (you might have heard of adrenal fatigue). Cortisol, however, keeps on going and this is a hormone that's very corrosive to the brain.

The brain is protected from Cortisol's effect by the neurotransmitter Norepinephrine. But, like Adrenaline, as stress goes on – and I the case of Covid – on, this protective substance decreases. Cortisol continues to wreak havoc in the brain. Modern anti-depressants work to keep the levels of Norepinephrine up in the brain since it not only protects, but like Dopamine, gives you a lift.

Now imagine the brain attempting to detox from these substances. It's a tough job, especially if you've been self-medicating with a bit more alcohol to cope. Naturally your ability to think, remember and make decisions is affected and ultimately – your focus.

In addition to the toxic effects of stress chemicals on the brain, remember the reason why we have stress is to survive. Anything that detracts from your ability to survive takes second place.

So, your brain will only want you to focus on what you need to do to survive and not much else. In our complicated lives, that makes for a struggle when we need to focus on work, doing the school run, or anything else the brain doesn't perceive as essential to our survival in the here and now.

So what can you do?

Practise radical mindfulness

Be aware of your stress levels. When you notice them going up, take a few calming breaths, then refocus. See:

What is mindfulness and brain training?

Practise radical self-care

Stress management is vital. There are any number of articles on this site to help. Here are a couple of good ones:

Plan and implement a stress management strategy

First aid: relief from stress, worrying and intrusive thoughts

Practise radical sleep hygiene

Sleep is your best friend. The brain detoxes during sleep and if you're not getting enough (at least 6 or 7 hours a night), then your brain will struggle. Here's how to get a good night's sleep:

Sleep hygiene - how to get a better night's sleep

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