It seems as if operating under severely stressful conditions is the default setting for most young – and not so young – people. Is that a result of the rapidly transforming pace of the 21st century? Perhaps it is. Forecasters predict that the norm, in the not too distant future for the span of a working person’s career, will be adjusting to and operating in chaos. The high-pressure expectations of life do not stop with our careers or studies. Think of the stress our social media accounts, mobile devices, travels and family responsibilities sometimes cause. While severe stress may be the standard in 2019, it has some concerning effects on one’s cognitive abilities and can even have long-term impacts on the brain and mental wellness.
If you have ever been under severe stress for an extended period, you may have experienced a fairly common side-effect – memory loss or lapses in memory. It may have been forgetting plans you had made or tasks on your to-do list, or something more serious such as a total block where you forgot everything you had studied for an exam or presentation at the critical time when you needed to recall that information. Some influencing factors are disrupted sleep patterns and interruptions to the chemical balances of our hormonal and nervous systems caused by stress. These disruptions affect our brain’s communication functions in the nervous system. As a result, chronic stress can inhibit one’s ability to learn new information, retain new memories and affect your emotional stability. All these functions are controlled by the same part of the neuro system. Over time this can affect personal and professional development and emotional stability.
When you have very high levels of stress over an extended period, it can lead to increased levels of cortisol, a hormone that usually regulates a number of physical functions. But, too much of a good thing is bad and increased levels of cortisol can negatively impact the structure of the brain. That’s a dramatic shift, we went from the somewhat innocuous inconvenience of short-term memory loss and occasional emotional roller-coastering in the short-term to actual structural changes to the brain over time. And by structural we mean brain shrinkage! Atrophy – the degeneration of cells – is a possible danger when you get to your forties and beyond if you’ve experienced chronic stress in your childhood and young adult years. One of the tragedies in a country like South Africa is that infants, children and youth are often exposed to high levels of stress that they have no control over due to the widespread poverty, inequality and violence. This early exposure to generalised trauma can actually have serious and permanent effects on brain development which sets the neurological patterns of individuals for the rest of their lives.
A few days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as an occupational syndrome caused by prolonged and ongoing stress. Burn-out is a mental and physical state of exhaustion where one can no longer continue functioning at the pace and level of performance as was done during a prolonged stressful period. On the WHO website, the syndrome is described as a phenomenon that results from occupational stress – that is stress from one’s job or studies. People are increasingly seeking medical help for incidents of burn-out because of the prevalence of physical and/or mental disruptions it causes. Depression and anxiety are mental illnesses commonly associated with chronic stress and like burn out they can leave one incapacitated, feeling empty and unsatisfied and even worthless or as if life has no purpose. These are self-defeating mental patterns that are evidence of serious mental health issues that must be addressed with a medical professional.
Stress in and of itself is not all bad, in fact stress in healthy doses is often a motivating factor that gives one the edge to push beyond your comfort levels. Ever used the phrase ‘I work better under pressure’ when you have a deadline looming that you knew about well in advance? It can give you a burst of creativity that you would not ordinarily experience. However, if every week is filled with tumult and frayed nerves because you have multiple deadlines, no time to take care of your life holistically and you feel you are constantly having to let someone down in order to meet the demands of your workload, financial responsibilities or familial duties then this is an unsustainable and dangerous pattern. It’s time to pause and evaluate the possible long-term effects this will have on your brain and your mental and emotional well-being. Ongoing, sustained self-care is vital to enjoying long-term mental health. Like your dental health, your mental health in your young adulthood will greatly impact your mental wellbeing in later years. Best to take care of yourself now and enjoy good mental health immediately and for the future.