How Stress Causes Ignorance

September 26, 2013

stress causes ignorance

We all know the effects and ways of how stress causes ignorance. “I’m so stressed, I can’t take it anymore!” “Why am I so stressed?!” “This stress is killing me!” Any of these exclamations sound familiar? Today’s business environment is saturated with “little yipping Chihuahuas”: financial concerns, too much work, job dissatisfaction, marketplace pressure, time and soul sucking meetings, information overload and a host of other issues, which is why “I’m stressed” is probably one of the most commonly used and most relatable two words we have in our vocabulary.

Boy do I know it well, as I’m sure you do too. In fact, the day I started Chapter 3, a chapter about stress, for my most recent book, “What Keeps Leaders Up At Night”, my neighbor started construction on her house. When I say “construction,” I mean a complete demolition that started at 5AM and continued well into the night with the rudest and loudest contractors I have ever had exposure to. The noise was unrelenting. I was writing my book from a barstool at my kitchen counter and after a week, I was living in a state of chronic agitation, not sleeping well at night, anticipating being awoken by a jackhammer that would feel like it was inside my brain. My concentration and thinking were so shot that I couldn’t write and of course, the deadline was always looming. I probably should have gone elsewhere to work, but I couldn’t think clearly. I was mired in a state of stress-induced stupidity. My state of existence became a stream of fragmented grunts and groans. I lacked the wherewithal to change the situation, to think, “Go to a coffee shop or your office, Nicole.”

Prolonged Stress Can Cause Stupidity

Prolonged, chronic stress causes ignorance oftenly. Though our brains are capable of dealing with sudden acute stress, they don’t fare so well with chronic stress, i.e. the endless little yipping Chihuahuas that prompt what psychologists call the long-term fight/flight response.Our stress response triggers hormone secretion like cortisol, the hormone that makes our bellies stick out a little further than we often would like. The perceptions of a given threat determine the type and amount of hormones the endocrine system will dispense.

The steady attack of personal and professional obligations and deadlines, the overload of emails, texts and other technology making us constantly accessible, and everything else that demands our attention in the measly 24 hours that we are given in a day build up a chemical cocktail that keeps our bodies in a constant state of agitation, impairing memory, thinking and learning.  Left unnoticed or ignored, this condition increases the odds that you will end up with serious mental and/or physical health problems, or in my case, pure stupidity.

Scott Adams on Managing Your Luck

Stupidity caused by stress is basically a bad case of the interaction between:

  • What you think of the stressor
  • How you think you can cope with the stressor

Perception, in a way, is everything because these thoughts trigger the biochemical response. When noise pollution from jackhammers or yipping Chihuahuas has you stuck on your barstool at your kitchen counter instead of sitting with a laptop and a cup of coffee at a quiet coffee shop, it’s time for a perspective shift from duh to do.  Many factors figure into a particular person’s response, such as their tendency toward pessimism or optimism, their perception of control over a situation, and their degree of hardiness and resilience to name a few.

I consider myself a relatively hardy and resilient lady but I was stuck in a state of pessimism and felt really out of control because I couldn’t think straight. My self-awareness was shot. I couldn’t formulate the questions, “How is this event threatening me?” or “How am I coping with the event?” because I perceived I was trapped. In hindsight, my answers to these questions would have been “It’s driving me crazy!” and “I’m coping like an idiot because I’m not doing anything.” Figuring out what I could control (my response and my actions) and what I couldn’t control (contractors and their schedule) would have forced me to shift perspectives earlier than I actually did. Truly a great exercise in any situation because guess what: you can’t control most events in life, but you can certainly control reaction to them.

The shift in perspective came several weeks later when I awoke, startled by the sound of a circular saw cutting its way through a piece of wood. I went about my same routine of trying to write with a bad case of “in the house” road rage, poking the letters on my keyboard and typing out curse words over and over again. Still in my pajamas, I threw on a pair of boots, grabbed my jacket and ran out of the house into my car and found myself at a Best Buy 5 minutes later, uncharacteristically throwing down a hefty sum for the best pair of noise-canceling ear phones on the market. I came back home, plugged the headphones into my computer, and found a website that broadcasted white noise.

We will not discuss what happened a few days later in my super productive, noise-cancelling state when I didn’t hear my friend key into my house after apparently knocking on the door and figuring I wasn’t home. That’s a different story about the wonders of the acute stress response versus the prolonged stress response and how sore your body feels several hours later, once the adrenaline wears off and your body stabilizes, from jerking yourself off of the barstool in total fear and tripping over the chair onto the floor because your feet were still entwined on the footrest, as your noise cancelling headphones and computer going flying across the room.

The Moral of this Story?

Stress is pretty much a given in our business lives and for many of us, in our personal lives. But the stress response is negotiable.We can survive the fact that stress causes ignorance by utilizing a healthy dose of stress to motivate us to respond effectively to challenging situations and get the job done. In fact, the right response to stress has kept the human race alive for millennia. It sends a signal that you must do something to deal with the situation. Implementing the right response leads to survival, success, better health, brain function, and in some cases reduced stupidity.

Are you stressed? Take the quiz.

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About The Author

NICOLE LIPKIN, a sought-after speaker and consultant, holds a doctorate in Clinical Psychology as well as an MBA. She has shared her expertise on NPR, NBC, CBS, Fox Business News, and other high-profile media outlets. Find out more at

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