Stress Makes Us Sick and Stupid

by James P. David Ph.D. on April 8, 2010

The impact of stress on physical health is well known.  For example, we now know that stress is a risk factor for illnesses such as heart disease, and it is associated with increased susceptibility to infectious diseases such as the common cold.

Stress has other effects that may be less obvious but still important. In fact, stress can make us stupid. It hinders our ability to think. Psychologists distinguish between central or deep processing on one hand, and peripheral or superficial processing on the other. Central processing involves careful, thoughtful consideration whereas peripheral processing involves reliance on simple cues, rules-of-thumb, or mental shortcuts. Stereotyping is often a result of peripheral processing.

When we are stressed, we are more likely to forego deep processing, opt for the short cut, and make more mental errors. It is not that good information is not in the ole noggin; rather, we just don’t use it as well when we are under high levels of stress. This is one explanation of why rumors morph and perpetuate so readily in situations such as natural disasters. Perhaps certain sales people understand this principle quite well. High pressure, low scrutiny. What about stressful trips to the doctor’s office, when we really need to be in good mental form to process important instructions and make good decisions? That’s why it is good to bring along someone who can do the deep processing when we cannot.

If you are considering exercise, meditation, yoga, or anything to get a grip on your stress, don’t forget, it is good for your heart and may make you a bit smarter.

Related References

Cohen, S., Tyrrell, D. A. J., & Smith, A. P. (1991). Psychological stress in humans and susceptibility to the common cold. New England Journal of Medicine, 325, 606-612.

Baron, R. S., David, J. P., Brunsman, B, & Inman, M. (1997). Why listeners hear less than they are told: Attentional load and the teller-listener extremity effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 826-838.

Petty, R. E. & Cacioppo, J. T. (1986). Communication and persuasion: Central and peripheral routes to attitude change.New York: Springer-Verlag.

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