Why Does the Brain Become Overwhelmed?

I have had many of my students ask me this question so I thought I’d answer it here.

The primary reason why the brain becomes overwhelmed is that it’s burning excess energy in an effort to manage stress. Stress comes from many sources; worry, fear, ruminating over something, and the strain of poor health are just a few.

The brain manages stress by activating the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events, and the cingulate gyrus, which is involved in processing emotions and regulating behavior. Both of these systems are energy hogs. But, the subconscious mind is an energy conservationist because it knows that your body also needs energy to function. It prevents the brain from hogging all the energy by reducing the function of the largest part of the brain, the cortex. Specifically, it reduces the activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain we tend to use all the time.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that controls executive functions; clear thinking, decision-making, strategizing, planning, etc. When these functions are reduced, we tend to go into a downward spiral that keeps getting worse and worse until we do something to break that cycle, and most people don’t do that well because they are focused on the *effect* rather than the cause.

The downward spiral is fed by our own frustration at ourselves as we observe that we are not thinking as clearly as we know we can, or are not making good decisions, or can’t stay focused on a project we need to complete. The frustration increases stress and as the stress goes up, the executive functions go down even further. Most people unconsciously manage the escalating stress by going into escape mode. Rather than completing a project, they find themselves surfing the web or watching some interesting (and distracting) YouTube video, for example. Then they get even more frustrated because that really isn’t what they want to be doing.

At some point, the reactive brain is on overdrive, the thinking brain has slowed to a crawl, and we are feeling completely overwhelmed. The way out of this dilemma is to shift your focus.  Rather than beating yourself up for not being a sharp as you know you can be, realize that how your brain is working in not the problem.  The problem is that you are stressed.  Here’s what to do:

1. Stop beating yourself up. Know that your brain is working perfectly to preserve energy, and that as soon as you reduce stress, your thinking, strategizing, and decision-making abilities will return to normal.    

2. Realize that the culprit is stress and find ways to reduce it. Take a break. Go do something fun. If you take the time to do that, even when you are needing to get something done, you’ll find that you get back to the project with a clearer head and more energy, and can actually get more done, easier, and in less time. 

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