Can stress affect your problem-solving abilities?
Why do we feel so overwhelmed and choke in important situations? A lot of it comes down to feeling anxious and getting bogged down by stress.
The situation might seem familiar: you study hard for a test, cover all your bases, and on the day of reckoning you find yourself floundering and getting stumped by straightforward problems. This is an issue that plagues many people and seriously makes them doubt themselves. Why do we feel so overwhelmed and choke in important situations? A lot of it comes down to feeling anxious and getting bogged down by stress - the body reacts as if it is in a threatening situation and this hampers our ability to think straight.
A recent study published by the University of Missouri School of Medicine looked at the effect of stress on the brain and its consequences on problem-solving abilities. The study recruited 45 healthy college students to participate in this investigation.
What did the study find?
The 45 students were picked by first genetically testing for a variation in the SERT (serotonin transporter) gene. The variation is associated with a higher vulnerability to stress. In the first part of the study, they were then asked to participate in a verbal processing task in which they were tested on how many objects they could name from a category in a minute while being monitored by an MRI machine. There were two sessions: the first was considered no stress whereas the second one was meant to induce stress in the participants.
This part of the study showed that there was no overall difference in performance between the conditions. However, the MRI results showed that there was a change in the brain’s overall functional connectivity in all the participants.
What were the effects on problem-solving?
In the second part of the study, the subjects were asked to participate in problem-solving tasks. Again, they were hooked to MRI machines and completed the tasks in stress and no-stress settings. It was found that in the stress setting, there were changes in connections in a section of the brain called the middle temporal gyrus. The stress-related variant of the SERT gene determined this relationship.
The study is important because it specifies a brain marker that is associated with higher levels of stress when confronted with problem-solving tasks. It appears that while the middle temporal gyrus is activated during problem-solving tasks when under stress, an individual’s genetic makeup determines how and to what extent the person responds to the situation.
What can be taken from the findings?
The study was modest in its size and further research needs to be conducted on the effects of stress on cognitive problem-solving. However, the researchers hope to study populations that are particularly wary of test-taking and those suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Interventions aimed at mitigating this phenomenon could provide some relief to those who suffer from the debilitating effects of stress.
For more information, read our article on Stress: Symptoms, Types, Causes and Prevention.
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