You may be less likely to spot danger when you're stressed

Stress could impair your ability to spot danger.
Stress could impair your ability to spot danger.

Stress has many negative effects on our bodies: higher blood pressure, increased risk for chronic diseases, tendency to gain weight, impaired sleep, and the list goes on.

But another negative effect has come under the spotlight. Have you ever felt so panicked and rushed while driving that you failed to see the car pulling out in front of you? That's an example of our impaired ability to spot danger when stressed.

Fight or flight?

In a finding that challenges the belief that stress heightens your ability to spot danger, researchers report it did exactly the opposite in lab experiments.

"Stress does not always increase perceptions of danger in the environment, as is often assumed," said lead study author Candace Raio. She is a postdoctoral researcher at New York University.

"In fact, our study shows that when we are under stress, we pay less attention to changes in the environment, potentially putting us at increased risk for ignoring new sources of threat," Raio noted in a university news release.

The study was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stress hormones

In the study, volunteers viewed images on a computer screen. The appearance of some images was coupled with a mild, electric shock to the wrist, while other images were not paired with a shock.

A day later, half of the participants underwent a procedure designed to induce stress. The "stress group" placed their arm in an ice-water bath for a few minutes, which elevated two known stress hormones – alpha-amylase and cortisol.

Later, all of the volunteers repeated the threat-conditioning procedure on the computer. However, this time the cues switched: the earlier "threatening" cue no longer predicted a shock to the wrist, but the formerly "safe" cue did.

While the study participants viewed the images, the scientists collected physiological responses, to measure how individuals anticipated the outcome of each cue.

Those in the stress group were less likely to change their responses to threats than were those in the other group, an indication that stress impaired their ability to be flexible in detecting new threats, the study authors said.

"Stress can reduce the flexibility of our responses to threats by impairing how well we track and update predictions of potentially dangerous circumstances," Raio explained.

How to manage stress

Don't let daily stress get the better of you. Here are a couple of coping mechanisms that can help ease daily stress:

  • Maintain a positive mindset, e.g. by verbalising a good thing about your day.
  • Make time for rest and relaxation.
  • Treat any sleep disorders to ensure proper sleep.
  • Make time for regular exercise.
  • Maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Plan your day to stay in control of your schedule.
  • Plan your finances to have leeway for any unexpected events or emergencies.

Image credit: iStock 

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