STRESS
May 6, 2013

The Deer-in-Headlights Phenomenon

Stress can cause mental paralysis, stifling creativity and problem-solving. What you can do to break its spell.

Stress can turn us into a deer in headlights — paralyzed and unable to decide where to turn or what to do. During times of stress, it’s harder to pay attention, think creatively, and solve problems effectively than when you have less on your plate.

There is an antidote for stress's mental paralysis. Self-affirmation has been shown to help people get through times of acute stress (immediate, but short-lived stressors). Now it appears the technique also works for chronic stress.

Reflecting on our priorities can buffer the negative effects of stress.

The word “affirmation” may make you think back to Stuart Smalley, the SNL character played by now-Senator Al Franken, who proclaimed in the mirror, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me!”

But think again. Affirmations can keep us focused on what is important in our lives and, in so doing, put our worries in perspective.

Participants were asked to rank their values and write about why their number one value was most important to them. In this way, they were “affirming” their beliefs.

To test what effect this might have on creative thinking, the psychologists gave the participants word problems. For example, people in the study had to provide an appropriate word linking "cone," "mobile" and "flake,” the answer being the word “snow.”

Study participants who did not report much stress were able to solve about eight out of 12 problems, on average. Those who reported being quite stressed correctly solved only five problems, a good picture of the degree to which stress can dampen our creativity.

But when these more stressed participants did the “affirmation” exercise before attempting the word problems, they performed just as well as non-stressed participants. This suggests that simply reflecting on our priorities — whether it’s humor, family, or religion — can buffer the negative effects of stress.

The results are encouraging for anyone who suffers from the effects of chronic stress and anxiety, which is an increasing number of people these days. Keeping a journal, where you affirm what is important to you, has also been shown to provide several mental health benefits.

So if you’re feeling the negative effects of stress, try taking a moment to write down what you value most and what you’re grateful for. It may help you be better in tune with yourself and feel less frazzled.

The study is published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

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