The zombie apocalypse is already here. Or at least, it might seem that way for many business executives. While they may not be the groaning, shuffling brain-eaters from Hollywood horror movies, more often than not, CEOs are running on empty and can feel like they are experiencing “brain fog.”
It’s not just CEOs. It’s new mums getting by on fragmented sleep, the eager volunteer who commits to every project, task, and committee, or the small-business owner who wears so many hats they can’t keep track.
The CEO Zombie
The life of an executive is physically taxing. There is often frequent travel and little time for fitness. It’s also mentally taxing — executives make difficult decisions all day and are accountable to their business.
These pressures can result in a compromised ability to manage other areas of life, such as family commitments or social activities. In combination, this can impact coping and increase overall levels of perceived stress.
Business leaders grow into their roles through a combination of education, intelligence, business acumen, and experience. Unfortunately, as work demands and volume increase, they can feel chronically depleted. This leads to inefficiencies in cognitive functioning, including processing speed, multi-tasking ability, and learning or remembering information.
Stress and Decision-Making
Most executives start the day with a to-do list, and hopefully, some items get checked off. Meanwhile, their team brings new ideas, opportunities and challenges; the list grows, rather than shrinks.
Decision fatigue refers to an individual’s compromised quality of choices after a long session of decision-making. Studies have shown that judges may make poorer quality verdicts later in the day, for example. Additionally, individuals inundated with decision-making responsibilities are more likely to delay or avoid making those decisions.
Your Brain on Stress
In addition to decision fatigue, an ambitious to-do list can increase feelings of stress which can, over time, impact the brain structures involved in decision-making.
When your brain perceives a stressor as negative, your nervous system reacts with a sympathetic response that is designed to protect you from threats. It is designed for brief periods of intense stress – for survival and not high level analytical reasoning and rational decision-making. Over time, this stress response can impact your immunity, blood pressure, gastrointestinal and endocrine systems, as well as increase your susceptibility to muscle aches, headaches and inflammatory processes.
Additionally, chronic activation of this stress response affects the regulation of your brain’s neurochemicals and hormones, which can impact the structure and integrity of the neurons essential to send and receive information. This, in turn, negatively impacts the functioning those areas of your brain involved in decision-making, including the prefrontal cortex and its interconnected circuits.
Beyond the prefrontal cortex, other parts of the brain are also sensitive to chronic stress and activation. The amygdala, the area involved in emotional regulation and fear, becomes more likely to be activated and the neurons in this area more robust. In contrast, the dendrites in your hippocampus, the area involved in learning and memory, shrink in response to stress.
Chronic stress also affects cell recovery in the brain. Ongoing stress can reduce the level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in the growth and survival of neurons.
Avoiding the Zombie Apocalypse
Feeling indecisive or overwhelmed can compound stress, which in turn drains cognitive abilities and exacerbates poor decision-making. These five tips may help reduce stress — and avoid declines in executive function.
- Structure your day. Make complex decisions earlier in the day and ideally after some exercise.
- Get enough sleep. Give your body time to build energy reserves to set you up for another busy day.
- Prioritize healthy living. Exercise and a balanced diet can increase brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), or at least prevent decreases during times of stress.
- Eat brain-boosting foods. Omega-3 fatty acids can enhance memory, cognition and overall mood — try salmon, avocado or a handful of walnuts. Rich-coloured produce such as berries, broccoli and red peppers contain antioxidants, which also improve brain function.
- Plan ahead. Reduce the number of low-impact choices you make each day, particularly in the morning. For example, pick your outfit the night before—it’s one less decision to make before work.
Decision fatigue and feeling like a zombie can affect anyone. Be aware of your signs and symptoms from heavy stress, lack of sleep, or inactivity. Optimizing your sleep is a great way to improve brain function. Read about why sleep is the ultimate performance-enhancing drug.
For more information on how the team at Copeman Healthcare can help you get out of your brain fog and optimize your health and wellbeing, contact your local clinic.