The negative effects of stress are no secret. Most of us have heard by now that long-term, chronic stress can result in a variety of health issues. That was well known before the pandemic arrived.

As we enter the final months of this chaotic year, what is remarkable and new about the stress we’re facing is that it’s a shared experience. To one degree or another, we’re all experiencing stress for months on end and in various forms.

We may be fearing for our health or the health of family members or friends. We may also be fearing the pandemic’s economic fallout concerning job stability or finances. It’s also important to note that we have very little control over these stresses and there’s no end in sight to our current situation.

We may not need to be reminded about how stressed we are. However, it’s worth revisiting the impact stress can have on thoughts and moods.

According to brain science, the dominant reaction to stressful situations is the “flight, fight or freeze” response. This is how our primitive brain evolved to take over and help preserve our lives. As hormones like adrenaline flood our bloodstream, our heart and respiration rates increase dramatically, preparing us for this response.

The “flight, fight or freeze” response originates in our limbic brain, where instinct and rapid choice dominate decision-making. As stress throws the limbic brain into overdrive, the prefrontal cortex gets put on hold. This is where higher level brain functions occur, such as reasoning, creativity and empathy. This part of the brain enables us to be our best selves. However, it become less available during stress. After all, composing a sonnet is not going to be much help when you need to run for your life.

As we focus on keeping ourselves, our families and our organizations resilient through this difficult time, time, it’s helpful to be mindful of “where” we’re experiencing this stress. Long-term stress has a way of rewiring our brains. As the stress of 2020 drags on, we may find that our prefrontal cortex, which allows us to bring forth our “best selves” may be temporarily unavailable.

As you strive to remain safe and stable throughout the rest of this year, keep in mind that your decision-making and other high-level brain functions might not be at their best. When faced with key decisions, it’s important to take a moment and reflect on whether your decisions are being influenced by your prefrontal cortex, which controls your best self, or whether it’s your limbic brain taking control.

Remember, we have the potential to “take our brains back” by becoming more aware of how we react to our stress and consciously activating the parts of the brain that may have been put on hold.

If you need help managing your stress, please reach out for assistance. If you have an FEI Employee Assistance Program, please contact your EAP Services Center, which is accessible 24/7/365.