Stress can affect work performance

by Kara Haworth, The Nebraska Medical Center | August 11, 2014

Image with file name: Stressed0811.jpg

On Thursday, we discussed the many stress factors that surround working in health care, especially considering all of the changes our campus is experiencing, from our clinical transformation, to our electronic health record and to new government mandates.

Steven Wengel, M.D., chair of the UNMC Department of Psychiatry, took note of all of the stress factors we're experiencing and decided to educate staff on what stress can do to the brain and ways to cope.

Stress classes planned

Dr. Wengel and his colleague Bill Batey, medical social worker and psychotherapist, have teamed up to offer a series of stress-coping classes this fall, free of charge. This series will offer insight into the impact of stress on your brain and will focus on coping techniques to reduce stress and improve your health and sense of well-being. If you are interested or would like more information, please e-mail Maggie Milner.

It all begins with the amygdala. "This is an important part of the brain," Dr. Wengel said. "It's buried in the base of the brain and serves as its fear center."

Dr. Wengel said it's the amygdala that keeps you alive in life-threatening situations. "When you experience a new perception - you hear, smell or see something -- the thalamus processes that information and then relays it to both the cortex and the amygdala."

Dr. Wengel described the cortex as the "thinking part" of the brain, while the amygdala is responsible for making a split-second decision about the sensory information. "It decides 'is this life-threatening or not? Do I need to do something?'" he said.

If the answer is yes, the amygdala takes over. Physicians call this the "amygdala hijack." It means the sudden, intense, unconscious and emotional response.

"When this happens, it shuts off the cortex, or the thinking part," Dr. Wengel said.

It's often referred to as the "fight or flight response."

When this happens, the brain pumps out stress hormones, like adrenaline and the steroid cortisol, designed to assist when a person is in a state of physical shock.

Stress can trigger the "amygdala hijack."

"This temporarily derails your ability to problem solve or concentrate," Dr. Wengel said. "It's very bad for short-term memory and over time, can damage it."

The repeated release of cortisol can damage the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for short-term memory and the part that releases cortisol. It's triggered by the amygdala.

"There is a sweet spot when it comes to experiencing stress," Dr. Wengel said. A moderate amount can inspire someone's best performance, like a deadline, for example. But under too much stress, a person's performance begins to suffer.


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August 18, 2014 at 8:33 AM

What happens when the more mindfull one becomes the more one stressed. I know the answer but can'r seem to stop it

August 11, 2014 at 7:45 AM

Like our department, I am sure there are a lot of departments under stress!