How stress can make you lose the plot


There you are sitting in the driver's seat ready to do the next part of your driver's test. You can do this; you've done it over a hundred times. All too soon it's over, and you can't recall what happened between the starting point and you bumping the pole again.

Why is it that, when we are under extreme pressure to perform, we become so much worse at delivering? Why do we forget names just as we're about to introduce someone, mess up a reverse park we've done smoothly dozens of times just because we're being judged on it, and flop the flop-proof cake just because we said we'd bring one for the weekend?

Good stress vs bad stress

All stress is not bad. We need stress to thrive, excel and enjoy life. But even positive stress can become negative if not balanced and managed correctly.

Doctor Frans Korb, psychiatrist and board member of the South African Anxiety and Depression Group, explains: "When we are under pressure to perform, anxiety increases. This is normal. It pushes us to perform well. You should have control over it."

However, ongoing stress can cause anxiety to become permanent, which could result in generalised anxiety disorder.

Common physical stress symptoms include fatigue, headache, nausea, breathlessness, racing heart, and sweaty palms. Mental symptoms are poor concentration, memory difficulties, confusion and demotivation. Emotional and behavioural symptoms include anxiety, fear, depression, a feeling of being on edge and irritability.

"Abnormal anxiety is when you feel out of control and can't cope with stressful situations," says Korb.

Stress different for everyone

A study done last year showed that when it comes to performance stress, the female brain reacts differently to the male brain. Researchers found that different parts of the brain were activated in men and women. Stress responses also differ between genders. This is sometimes characterised as 'fight-or-flight' in men and 'tend-and befriend' in women.

They further found that women respond to stress by increasing activity in brain regions involved with emotion, and that these changes last longer than those in men.

Most of the stress we experience is based on our perception of a situation. Whether one perceives a situation as a threat (either psychological or physical) is crucial in determining our behavioural and physiological response.


Dr Korb says the best way to deal with stress is to live a healthy balanced lifestyle.

"Take time out, have a hobby, find ways to escape the pressures and stress of your life. Force yourself to do things that you enjoy," says Korb. "Negative thoughts are our worst enemy; thinking negatively affects everything we do. Look at your life as a whole and focus on the positive, not the negative."

Stress- busting tips

  • Don't worry about things that are out of your control
  • Prepare to the best of your ability for stressful events
  • Set realistic goals and don't be too hard on yourself to perform perfectly
  • Exercise regularly, eat balanced meals and sleep enough
  • Talk to someone you trust when you are feeling stressed out

Image: Shutterstock

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