Stressed? Pressed? How Well Does Your Brain Work?

I feel a knot in my stomach, pressure spreading through my chest, my mouth goes dry and words become sticky. Sometimes, my mind goes blank.

Sound familiar?

This is what happens to me under extreme stress. Oh, not the everyday stuff we all grow accustomed to. But terror that may result in a moment of panic. The sort of thing that occurs when receiving bad news on the telephone, or a child is temporarily missing.

Then there’s rage, which is another matter altogether. And its cousin, outrage – often lurking in the shadows for those who experience post-divorce life, or perhaps any lifestyle that is dramatically different from what they expected.

To say that many of us live under extreme stress is no exaggeration.

It seems to be a growing problem – (hello, Prozac?) – in our American landscape littered with dead marriages, lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and befuddled children acting out.

Parenting Particulars

And then there’s parenting in and of itself – not only the focus on whether or not we’re doing it right, but does a mother or father exist who hasn’t experienced horrendous moments of fear or worry, regardless of parenting style or type of family unit?

And when we become the caretakers of our own parents, and simultaneously dealing with teenage or adult children? How much more squeezed do we feel then? Are we making good choices for them as well as ourselves? Do we become oblivious to our own reactions? Numb, in order to survive?

I’ve been thinking about the way men and women process emotions, not to mention the way we communicate differently. Recently, I’ve seen examples of both – a few of which reflected times of extreme fear or frustration.

What happens? Reason flies out the window. At least, momentarily.


What happens to our cognitive functioning when we panic? Why is it that suddenly we can’t orient ourselves, or for that matter – process simple directions, read a map, or even understand a few sentences on the page?

We’ve all heard of fight or flight – our natural survival instincts that kick in when we’re threatened. We stay and fight, or we take flight. But when fear turns to panic, it seems to short-circuit decision-making and sometimes, basic skills. I recall times I was so frightened I could grasp a document in my hands, stare at it, yet I was incapable of processing the words or images I was seeing. All cognitive systems were temporarily stalled.

Performance Pressure

When I’m under deadline and someone interrupts, annoyance quickly flares into anger. Then, more pressed to perform, I become short-tempered, I make more mistakes, and multitasking is generally out of the question.

I recall my first forays into public speaking – the sensation of my heart racing, my mouth going dry, my palms sweating. With practice – all of those symptoms disappeared – and I was able to accomplish my goal. But performance pressure rarely brought me the kind of brain drain that other sorts of fear does.

Fear and Worry

I know what it is to receive shocking news – the death of a loved one – and in the case of my parents, there was an unexpected phone call in each instance. First, there is disbelief, followed by the sensation that the world has flipped upside down. For hours, for days, for longer.

Another example? The dread we feel when a child is late and unaccounted for; rational thought is obliterated as the maternal brain imagines the worst.

When extreme fear or worry takes over, I find myself fighting through a sort of white noise, trying to drag myself back to a place of context, of reason, a place where I can carve out recognizable markers and possible solutions. But until I make my way back? My physical body seems to operate from a distance. And my brain checks out.


Angry outbursts trigger childhood memories for me – and they aren’t good ones. When anyone around me yells, I can feel the same discomfort rippling through my body that I felt in my youth. I do not respond effectively to anger, though I’ve learned to function relatively well by remaining as calm as possible.

Does it always work? Certainly not. But who hasn’t had a fight with a spouse or partner? And what parent hasn’t gotten into it with a kid now and then – especially if you have other worries on your mind? And if you’re a single parent carrying the load, you’re under a particular sort of stress constantly, which makes flare-ups all too common.

Gender? Hormones? Chemistry?

So how much is male versus female? How much of our resilience in times of extraordinary stress is a matter of individual “mental toughness,” learned behaviors, or possibly – hormones and chemistry?

Can we improve our ability to deal with extreme circumstances, simply by living through them? Or do we adjust in order to survive, but with impaired ability to make good decisions – especially if we do so in isolation?

What about attitude? Is it really a key determinant, or is that so much pop culture pap?

I went seeking studies (that I could understand), trying to find some answers. Certainly, research exists, but locating articles in layman’s terms wasn’t easy.

If you have some to share – I’d love to check them out.

Looking in the (Emotional) Mirror

Over the years I’ve looked in my own mirror – at my reactions to extreme or extended stress. I’ve been at my wit’s end more than once; divorce and unemployment are often cause for disorientation, and raising children alone has intensified the experience. But I couldn’t have survived any of it if I hadn’t diffused the pressure – somehow retrieving the ability to deal calmly, to see options, and to view the impacts of my behavior on my sons.

I also recognize that the effort of fighting constant stress has left me physically worn out. I’ve been taking more time to sleep (rare for me), and paying meticulous attention to what I’m eating. Both seem to be helping. Yet I suspect that if I had another adult around to “balance out” some of those tougher moments in life – it would have helped more than anything.

You know what they say – it takes a village. Even for the adults.

  • Do you recognize when stress is taking over your ability to function?
  • Are you more stressed by performance pressures or anxiety and worry of other sorts?
  • Do you turn to other people when your systems are pushed into the danger zone?
  • Are your children repeating your stress-induced behaviors?


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  1. says

    Unfortunately, parenting has become another stressor instead of a joy. We’re all trying so hard to do it right. Yes, definitely I have felt stressed and yes, unfortunately I have taken it out on other people. And definitely yes – doing it on your own is about 100 times harder than having a partner.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You said a mouthful, Pamela – that parenting has become a stressor rather than a joy. Hopefully we find joy in it, still, and allow our kids to have elements of what I think of as “a real childhood.”

  2. Linda says

    The last few years have been extremely stressful and I swear I thought I was losing my mind. I couldn’t remember simple words, names. I was always at a loss for words. I started reading blogs :) and somehow reading other people’s words and getting outside of myself helped. I tend to keep all stressors to myself which hasn’t been healthy, and am slowly asking for help, but it’s hard.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I know what you mean, Linda. It’s such a terrible cycle. Extreme stress seems to blot out some of our basics (words, names), which is disorienting and causes more stress. Getting outside yourself, as you say, and connecting to other people are great ways to reorient.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      “… information … from underload to load to overload…” Wonderful article, Wolf. Thank you. We do indeed stress ourselves out over trying to keep up – with too much, and much of it unnecessary. ,

  3. says

    It’s funny but I was going through all of the emotions that you described here and realize that I’ve been experiencing quite a bit of most of them these days. Post-partum plus family-related plus job-related stress is truly a recipe for disaster.

    As for panic, I remember choking on a small object when I was little and my mom was so panicked she didn’t know what to do so my aunt (who thankfully lived with us at the time) stepped in and did a rudimentary Heimlich, which saved my life. I’m a mom now and I often wonder, if anything should happen to my children, will I be quick on my feet like my aunt or panic like my mom? I hope I will never have the occasion to find out.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You mention important points, Justine, that touch on other sources that send our cognitive functions flying out the window… extended sleep-deprivation, for one. Having lived this one for years, I can attest to the impacts on emotions and basic skills. As you say, a recipe for disaster.

      Quite a story, about choking as a child! We never know how we’ll react in life-threatening situations. But we sure do worry about it, and I believe that knowledge helps us. At least a bit.

  4. says

    I think my daughter is picking up on some of my behavior. I don’t do very well when my environment is cluttered. That stresses me out. Sometimes I observe my daughter mildly melting down because things are too “messy” according to her. As far as panic mode for myself, I am trying to get better at achieving a calm state, but it hasn’t happened yet. I always jump to the worst conclusions.

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