By Danielle Angeloni, MusicWorx Intern
You may have heard of or read the infamous book “don’t sweat the small stuff” by Richard Carlson PhD. I had the book introduced to me as a teenager and have often turned to it in times of crisis. Over the years, I’ve learned that not sweating the small stuff is, of course, much easier said than done. Understanding a bit about basic neuroscience explains why the book is a bestseller! As human beings, our brains are wired to “sweat the small stuff” and constantly respond to our ever-changing environments. The tagline under the title of “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” reads “And it’s All Small Stuff.” I’m not sure if I agree with that. While I understand that “sweating the small stuff” can escalate into a larger problem, sometimes we are blindsided by “big stuff” and don’t realize how it affects our lives until it is too late.
During my first month of internship I maintained my daily yoga practice, talked to my friends and family, journaled, and took weekly hiking trips. Even while practicing all of these treasured coping mechanisms, the stress I experienced while adapting to my new life in San Diego as a music therapy intern affected my cognitive functioning, and I struggled with memory recall for documentation purposes. Now outside of that first month cloud and into the swing of the MusicWorx internship routine, I am interested in studying what exactly happens in the brain to affect cognitive function during periods of high stress or adaptation.
When thrown into new situations, our brains go into hyper-alert mode trying to respond to the new environment while maintaining homeostasis. Our cognitive functioning is challenged and new neural pathways are formed in response to the new tasks and surroundings. The more we practice a new routine (exercise, documentation format, chord progression etc.), the easier it becomes as the neural pathways in the brain get stronger. Our brains love repetition and dislike change, which is why we are more prone to stress during times of adaptation.
A brain undergoing stress releases a cocktail of stress hormones. As the Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory Magazine tells us, short term stress hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline have positive benefits like “hyper-alertness, sharpened perception, and increased ability to form new memories.” However, when episodes of extreme stress last longer than a few minutes, cortisol is released from our adrenal glands. Cortisol sends more energy to the muscles in the body, and as a result the prefrontal cortex shuts down along with the body’s digestive and reproductive systems. The prefrontal cortex controls the brain’s executive functions like short term memory, organizing, decision making and goal setting.
Why does this happen?
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors living the hunter-gatherer lifestyle needed this stress hormone cocktail in order to out-survive predators, such as a tiger. But now that the only time the vast majority of people will ever see a tiger is at the zoo or wildlife preserve, leftover cortisol in our bodies and brains causes a stress hormone hangover and our life becomes a hypothetical zoo.
Situations that pay the “bartenders,” the adrenal glands, to serve the stress hormone cocktail can be as grandiose as moving across the country on your own, or as minuscule as getting startled by the sound of a pack of motorcycles. When we live these sort of events, our brains have either a fight, flight, or freeze reaction. An innate reaction is not something we can instantly change because it’s encoded in our DNA. We can, however, learn to become aware of which reaction our minds and bodies favor, and take mindful steps to break down the behavior and avoid escalating. The fight/flight/freeze reactions are behavioral reactions and therefore more obvious than cognitive impairments that result from stress. Stress can negatively impact cognition functions such as memory, learning, organizing, reasoning, planning, problem solving, visual perception, and time management.
So what classifies as the “big stuff?” Large scale change, displacement, culture shock, trauma, abuse/neglect, loss of a loved one, institutionalized racism, sexism, and drug and alcohol abuse would all fall in the “big stuff” category. I invite you to take into account these factors in your work and daily interactions with other humans. In addition, some individuals experience chronic stress as a genetically inherited trait. Chronic stress makes the “small stuff” perpetually feel like “big stuff.” In addition to experiencing emotional side-effects, individuals with chronic stress most likely have minor to severe delays in cognitive functioning. We never know how our clients, families, friends, neighbors, or enemies are affected until we take the time to understand, connect with, and learn about the details of their lives.
Isn’t stress and change inevitable?
Stress and change are inevitably a part of life. Practicing mindfulness helps us to observe what is going on in our lives and respond in a way that increases our own wellness. Wherever you are at, managing the “small stuff” or wading through the “big stuff,” you can adopt exercises and daily rituals to help ease your mind/body response to stress. And remember, you don’t always have to do it alone! Talking to a friend or seeing a therapist are great steps toward mindfulness. With each change or obstacle there is another opportunity for growth and a new neural pathway to be made.
Former interns have written “getting through the muck” and “an intern’s guide to self care.” Both of these resources list helpful practices, not just for thriving during internship but in other stressful situations and periods of adjustment. My personal favorite? Getting outside and changing my perspective even if for an hour or two. Here is a beautiful picture I took while on a hike to Peñasquitos Falls with my co-intern.