Stress Makes You Stupid

Stress Makes You Stupid

Stress, the flight or flight response, is a necessary part of being human. It’s what kept us from being eaten by things in the distant past. There are a whole lot of physical changes that occur while stressed, but there are also mental changes as well.

Most of us don’t have to worry about being dinner for some hungry animal these days, and yet, the stress response is alive and well.

In the past week, I’ve heard from three different sources that “stress makes you stupid.” Given my recent experience with extreme stress and the brain fog that went with it, I have to agree, and so I wanted to look into this phenomena as well as give some tips to get through it.

Anecdotal Evidence

While my life was shifting around rapidly and my husband was in the hospital, I was under a great deal of stress. My body was in primal survival mode: my blood pressure skyrocketed; I didn’t want to eat due to stomach distress; I couldn’t sleep; and I was sweating like I had done a marathon kickboxing session.

(You can read more about the signs here:

But I also noticed some severe mental symptoms as well: I couldn’t remember the most basic things like my parent’s address; it took two or three tries to understand complex issues my coworkers were trying to communicate; and at times I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin.

I did see my doctors about these issues, both physical and mental. I also urge you, if you are under extreme stress, to see your doctor.

Scientific Studies

There are a lot of studies out there about the effects of stress, both scholarly and more accessible information. Here are three that I ran across that I feel deserve a second look:

Getting Around This

So you’re under a lot of stress. You’ve seen your doctor to help counteract the physical symptoms. But what do you do about the stupidity that comes with stress? What do you do about the forgetfulness, the inability to focus and the anxiety?

1. Write everything down

The best counter to forgetfulness is to write everything down. And I don’t mean on sticky notes or other scraps of paper that could be lost easily. Get yourself a single notebook and carry it everywhere.

Times of stress are not the time to launch a new journal system or start art journaling (unless it relieves your stress). Just get everything down on paper and refer back to it when needed.

2. Give yourself some buffer

Buffers are important because they give us room to consider. When you are stressed, you are reacting to everything…and reacting might not be the best response to a situation.

Get used to saying “let me check my calendar at home/office and get back to you” or “let me look at my task list at home/office and get back to you” or delaying send on email that you are emotional about. All of these techniques will increase your buffer and give you a better result than just reacting.

3. Let others help

During a very stressful situation resulting from a car accident, upon hearing my “no I don’t need any help” pointed out that by denying others a chance to help me, I am denying them a chance to not feel helpless in the face of the situation. If people ask to help, and the help is something that will lift a burden for you, take it. There are no points to be gained for doing everything yourself.

Examples of help you should take if appropriate: running to the store; bringing food; watching children; walking dogs; lawn care; doing the dishes; being a single point of communication about the situation for others; or even sitting with a person in the hospital so you can get out.

Letting others help not only relieves some of the stress of everyday things, but it also means that other people who do not have a stress-friend brain are taking on tasks and the tasks are less likely to be completed faster and with less mistakes.

4. Have someone double-check

A few weeks ago I looked at my client manager and apologized for missing something (thankfully not all that important) during a code review. I remember saying, “I just don’t know where my brain is theses days.” He looked at me for a few moments, shook his head, and said, “Do I need to remind you that you are going through an incredibly stressful time? Of course you’re not going to remember.”

We have a system of code reviews at my job: nothing gets moved to our production environment without it running through the daily process, and until someone else has put eyes on the code. This double-checking has saved us hundreds of hours of bug fixes. I also had my team lead sit with me as I selected a health care plan and explained what I thought was getting. Since he works for the same company, he was able to double-check my choices.

Having someone double-check important things means that you don’t feel the added pressure of having to get things absolutely right. Consider it a safety net.


Stress is terrible for the brain. It really does make you stupid. So counteract the effects of stress as best you can by writing everything down, giving yourself some buffer, letting others help, and having someone double-check you.