When Your Brain Is Too Smart for Its Own Good

Jeremy Sharp, PhD neuroscience, stress & anxiety Leave a Comment

These brains of ours. They do so much – think, feel, perform day-to-day operations, keep us alive, etc. But it turns out that sometimes they’re a little too good at streamlining performance. A while back, the New York Times published an article detailing our brain’s response to stressful situations. There were two main points of the article, and I’ll tackle them separately.

The first point is that our brains, when faced with ongoing stress, default to “familiar routines and rote responses.” The experiments mentioned in the article were conducted with rats. These rats were basically put through the rat-equivalent of several 40+ hour work weeks, a bad economy, a couple of kids’ twice-weekly soccer and gymnastics practices, and extended visits from less-than-desirable relatives. Researchers found a couple of things…one, that the region of the rats’ brains responsible for seeking new solutions and making novel decisions actually shrank; and two, that the area responsible for habit-formation grew. Perhaps more importantly, they found that rats under stress developed habitual behaviors faster than non-stressed rats. Their theory is that the brain knows when we’re stressed and then goes on a sort of “autopilot” to save energy wherever possible.

Whoa, Brain. Thanks for the help, but how about checking in with us first? Way back when we were sharing the planet with huge tigers and the like, it was very helpful for our brain to put some tasks on autopilot while it devoted more energy to activating the sympathetic nervous system so that we could run or fight. The trouble is that there are no tigers anymore, and our brains often can’t tell the difference between “stress from tigers” and “stress from a full inbox.”

I’ve been talking with a good friend of mine over the last couple of months who’s been under similar stress to these rats in the study. The main stressor was starting a new job and all of a sudden working 10 hour days. His complaint is that his evenings now consist of coming home, drinking a beer, and collapsing in a chair – he has no energy or motivation for doing anything different.

Sounds like his brain is too smart for its own good. How many of us have experienced something similar? You get stressed and find yourself repeating patterns of behavior that aren’t necessarily helpful and aren’t exactly what you want to be doing. I know that I’ve fallen into these periods at different times in my life. The most recent was when I was commuting an hour each way to work, running several hours a week, and planning a wedding. Whew! Talk about a hard time to find motivation and experiment with new ways of handling my stress. All I wanted to do was watch American Idol and go to sleep.

I see many clients who deal with these issues in various ways. The fancy, diagnostic term is “Adjustment Disorder” – a time when a temporary stressor spurs someone into feeling more depressed or anxious than usual. Whether it’s moving to a new place, getting out of a long-term relationship, or starting a new job, there are always going to be times when we get stressed and default to habitual behaviors. Thankfully, it’s almost always temporary.

And that brings me to the second point of the article: that this habitual behavior can be reversed – yes, the brain can actually change its structure – with some vacation time. Areas dedicated to executive function blossom again, and areas dedicated to habit-formation shrink back. Just knowing that our brains are so flexible gives me, and many of my clients, something very important – hope. Many clients come to therapy feeling quite hopeless about their given situation, which is why it is so important to have research like this that says that our brains can change for the better. All we have to do is allow ourselves to take breaks from stress whenever possible rather than get stuck in the rut of day-to-day stuff.

For my clients (and myself), this means working on self-care strategies and perhaps cultivating a little more mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. This mindfulness can help us recognize when we’re on “autopilot” and restore the power of choice in our actions.

To echo the article’s ending (only for a different season): it’s only October. Still time to take a small fall trip or a walk outside before getting wrapped up in holiday craziness. Take care.


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