By Rebecca Tyler, Research Assistant, Connections in Mind
As adults, we all have our share of unavoidable chaos to deal with during a typical day which can lead us to feel stressed, sometimes for extended periods of time. One particularly important set of skills that are interrupted when you are stressed are your executive functions1. Understanding how you can improve your executive functioning and reduce stress, in addition to understanding the bidirectional effects they can have on one another, will benefit you in almost every aspect of your life, whether that’s personally or professionally.
What are executive functions?
Executive functions are a set of higher cognitive functions that help us with daily skills such as organisation, planning, forethought, concentration and goal-directed action. Essentially, our executive functions influence all of our thoughts, actions, behaviour and emotions. Whilst these skills peak in our 20s, they still need conscious and consistent work to be improved and maintained at all stages of life.
What effect does stress have on executive functioning?
When you feel stressed, your adrenal glands release high levels of catecholamines which impair the functions of the prefrontal cortex2. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that is necessary for our executive functions to operate properly. When you feel stressed it disrupts executive functions such as working memory and cognitive flexibility which alter your ability to be organised, work productively and remember information3.
It is important to understand that the relationship between stress and executive functioning works both ways; stress impairs our executive functioning, whilst decreased executive functioning can increase stress. For example, those who struggle to make a plan, get organised or make a good decision will end up putting themselves in a stressful situation.
After a certain point stress can start causing major problems to your health, mood, relationships and quality of life. Stress can have adverse effects on our bodies including low energy, insomnia, frequent colds or infections and chest pain. In extreme cases, chronic stress can lead to shrinkage in the branches of neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which can increase a persons’ vulnerability to stress-related disorders such as depression4. The good news is that due to the neural plasticity of the brain, the negative effects of stress on executive functioning can be reversed in healthy, cognitively intact adults5.
How can we reduce stress and improve our executive functioning?
The feeling of losing control is one of the main causes of stress and lack of wellbeing. The act of taking control in itself is empowering. One way you can do this is learning how to manage your time effectively. This will help you feel relaxed, focused and maximise the use of your time. You can achieve this by spending 10 minutes in the evening before work writing a list to help you work out what your goals and priorities are for the next day. Colour code your tasks into one of four categories: (1) urgent and important, (2) not urgent but important, (3) urgent but not important, or (4) neither urgent nor important. Learning how to reduce the number of urgent and important tasks will help you feel less stressed. Remember, focus on completing high-quality work, not quantity.
Mindfulness is having an awareness to present-moment experiences whether that’s thought, feelings, body or purpose. Practising mindfulness can help you control racing, repetitive and non-productive thoughts that can lead to stress. Research has shown that mindfulness can advance your executive functioning including working memory, self-control and the self-regulation of stress3. There are a number of mindfulness practices you can start incorporating into your daily life. For example, mindfulness meditation involves sitting silently and sustaining attention on the current moment by focusing on your breathing or body. There are plenty of mindfulness apps available such as Headspace or Calm to help you get started. Remember you can do this pretty much anywhere; on your commute to work (when that becomes a regular thing again), on your daily walk or run, or even when you’re cooking.
Spending quality time with someone who makes you feel safe and understood is a huge stress reliever. In fact, our bodies naturally respond to social connectedness in ways that help us feel calmer6. Building and maintaining a network of friends and family will improve your ability to combat stress and help you build resilience so that you can deal with life’s curveballs. They may not be able to fix the problems that are making you stressed, but they are there to listen, relate and empathise with you.
As we are currently experiencing huge changes to our daily working and social routines due to the coronavirus pandemic, it can be difficult to feel like you have a supportive network when you are physically distant from some of the people you rely on for this kind of support. Make sure you schedule plenty of time to talk and video call friends, family and work colleagues. With platforms like Zoom, Skype and House Party you can maintain your personal and work-related relationships without feeling isolated.
How can Connections in Mind help?
At Connections in Mind, we are a team dedicated and caring executive function coaching experts. Our coaches combine their expertise and knowledge acquired through experience and education with strategies based on the latest empirical research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs. If you struggle to cope with stress or can identify challenges with time management, emotional control, prioritisation, working memory or motivation we are here to support you. You will get to work one to one with one of our amazing coaches who will help you regain control by developing new strategies you can use in both personal and professional aspects of your life. You can read testimonials from our clients here. To help you understand the coaching process and to find a bespoke programme that works for you, book a free consultation call with Sarah, one of our executive function coaching experts today.
1 Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.
2 Arnsten, A. F. T. (2009). Stress signalling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10, 410-422.
3Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive Functions: A Meta-Analysis and Comparison with Cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Reviews, 68, 651-688.
4Akbaryan, F. (2014). Executive Function and Mental Health: A literature review. Retrieved from (PDF) Executive Function and Mental Health: A literature review
5Williams, P. G., Tinajero, R., & Suchy, Y. (2017). Executive Functioning and Health. Oxford Handbooks Online (pp. 1-53). Oxford University Press.
6Eisenberger, N. I., Taylor, S. E., Gable, S. L., Hilmert, C. J., & Lieberman, M. D. (2007). Neural pathways link social support to attenuated neuroendocrine stress responses. NeuroImage, 35 (5), 1601-1612.