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From Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People) by Amy Gallo:

“Research demonstrates that even mild instances of stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities. We have less access to higher-order thinking, which governs our thoughts, attention, behavior, emotions, and our decision-making. Put simply, we don’t think very clearly, and we lose our ability to make sound judgments, which is not a recipe for productive action.”

Does anyone have a source for this claim that "mild instances of stress" (like getting irked at someone/something) can cause "a rapid and dramatic loss" of our cognitive abilities in humans? The author does not provide any citation for this passage.

I'm not personally surprised that this may very well be true, but I'd like to know for sure that this is indeed the case.


I found a source that does state this in its abstract:

Arnsten, A. Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nat Rev Neurosci 10, 410–422 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn2648

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the most evolved brain region — subserves our highest-order cognitive abilities. However, it is also the brain region that is most sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress exposure. Even quite mild acute uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities, and more prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in prefrontal dendrites. Recent research has begun to reveal the intracellular signalling pathways that mediate the effects of stress on the PFC. This research has provided clues as to why genetic or environmental insults that disinhibit stress signalling pathways can lead to symptoms of profound prefrontal cortical dysfunction in mental illness.

However, reading the full paper (available in Sci-Hub) reveals that the authors base these conclusions on animal studies:

Several studies have used tasks that explicitly rely on PFC function to examine the effects of mild stress on cognitive performance. These studies used spatial working memory tasks in rats and monkeys and found that quite mild acute stress impaired the accuracy of responding and often produced a perseverative pattern of response that is consistent with PFC dysfunction. For example, a white-noise stress that impairs cognitive abilities in humans was found to also impair spatial working memory in monkeys. Conversely, performance of control tasks with similar motor and motivational demands but no need for PFC regulation was not altered by mild stress exposure. Similarly, rats exposed to acute stressors were impaired on a spatial delayed alternation task that requires medial PFC function, but were not impaired on a non-PFC-reliant spatial discrimination task in the same maze.

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    Human experimentation is subject to very close scrutiny. It's also very hard to keep a controlled environment (to rule out other factors). Also, the workings of the mind is not really deterministic. What might result in reaction A in one person might result in reaction B in another. That being said, the claim does not surprise me in the least, as it absolutely (and somewhat unfortunately) matches my personal experience.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Sep 17, 2022 at 20:13
  • I am not surprised. It has happened to me. In a parking lot, someone backed into my car. I saw them coming. In that instant, I did not know what to do. Afterward, it was obvious: I should have sounded my horn.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 18, 2022 at 11:33
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    This doesn't even seem controversial, assuming they mean immediate and temporary loss. If someone is saying the loss is permanent, that would require further evidence. Commented Sep 19, 2022 at 16:40
  • What is the definition of mild (and severe?) stress - since in the context of this question it cannot be stress with mild consequences on cognitive abilities? Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 16:41
  • Burnout or depression would be an example of extreme stress. Getting upset by a coworker at work would be an example of mild stress. Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 16:14

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“Research demonstrates that even mild instances of stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of prefrontal cognitive abilities. We have less access to higher-order thinking, which governs our thoughts, attention, behavior, emotions, and our decision-making. Put simply, we don’t think very clearly, and we lose our ability to make sound judgments, which is not a recipe for productive action.”

I may be too nit-picky here, but the author here suggests mild instances of stress rather than mild acute uncontrollable stress. The former is just too vague as well as broad and I think the specification matters to gain a clearer picture. Multiple forms of stress exist one amongst which is acute stress which can be explained simply as follows (reference):

Acute stress is one of the least damaging types of stress, which is good because it is also the most common type. We experience acute stress multiple times throughout the day. Acute stress is experienced as an immediate perceived threat, either physical, emotional or psychological.

These threats don't need to be intensely threatening—they can be mild stressors like an alarm clock going off, a new assignment at work, or even a phone call that needs to be answered when you're relaxing on the couch and your phone is across the room. Acute stress can also be more serious, like being pulled over for speeding, getting into an argument with a friend, or taking a test. The threat can be real or imagined; it’s the perception of threat that triggers the stress response.

Hence, the stress response triggered does result in a certain degree of drop in prefrontal cognitive abilities. However, this can be managed through better stress-management and relaxation techniques.

Furthermore, a distress you are facing may transform into eustress, so whilst you may be irked by someone temporarily, the end result of that interaction which started negatively may end up being positive and a learning experience. Hence, my distinction in the beginning between acute stress and "mild instances of stress". Stress, although mostly bad, can be good for you sometimes.

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  • Since Amy Gallo wasn't referring to chronic stress, what do you think her "mild instances of stress" could possibly refer to if not acute stress? I think they are synonymous. Do you have an example to the contrary? Commented Sep 24, 2022 at 15:48
  • @SridharRatnakumar Like I mentioned, it was probably nit-picky of me. However, the distinction I was trying to make was between acute distress and acute eustress. They can be included amongst 'mild instances of stress'. Acute and chronic eustress, although technically being a 'stressor' to the body, actually feel good, and are helpful for your physiology. Usually when we say 'acute stress', we refer to just acute distress, especially when you say "mild acute uncontrollable stress" with harmful physiological effects. But acute eustress is a mild form of stress too. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 9:51
  • I appreciate the distinction you are bringing here ... however, my question is posed regardless of that distinction: ie., whether there is evidence that mild distress/eustress can lead to a loss in cognitive capabilities in the moment of it being experienced (with or without stress-management/relaxation techniques). Whether I consider eustress to be 'good' for me or not is also outside the scope of this question. Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 20:39

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