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Effects of Stress on Cognition

Stress is the condition or feeling experienced when the demands pressing upon an individual exceed the personal coping skills and social resources he or she can mobilize. As we all know, stress plays a prominent role in our daily lives, generally evoking negative associations. Aside from being associated with headaches and sleepless nights, stress is also associated with mental health problems and can also negatively affect the cardiovascular and immune systems.

There is considerable evidence that cognitive performance changes when we are under stress. In the short term, acute stress can serve to enhance some types of mental functioning, an aspect of the “Flight or Fight” scenario posed by William James over 100 years ago. However, unrelieved chronic stress can produce deleterious cognitive changes including problems with thinking, memory, concentration and behavior. These changes can influence many parts of our lives, such as our ability to work or even to complete everyday tasks (i.e. driving, cooking, taking care of others).

Symptoms of stress also include depression of intellectual functioning, cognitive distortions and misinterpretations of situations, events and interpersonal exchanges (Beck, A. T., & Clark, D. A., 1997). In addition, people that are overstressed may have ruminative and unproductive patterns of thinking and indecisiveness. They worry and anticipate that « something bad » will happen and fear that they are losing control. They become distractible, impatient, and easily irritated. Further, memory can be impaired (Newcomer J.W. et al., 1999) and there is a tendency to engage in negative, unrealistic and pessimistic thinking patterns. Take stress seriously!