TLC for My Prefrontal Cortex

I’m burnt out. Over the last few months, I’ve taken over the Bureau of Media and Communications, dealt with employee turnover, hired, counseled, messaged for the State on Ebola, West Nile virus, chickungunya, rabies, health care policy, the flu, wellness and sexual assault. I also got engaged and am planning a wedding. Cue the tiny violins, right?

I try not to complain and keep the posts about long nights working at the office or till 1 a.m., on Friday nights to myself, but lately I’ve started to worry about what all this stress, lack of exercise, no days off and pressure is doing to my brain. More specifically, I’m worried about what long-term stress is doing to my prefrontal cortex.

There’s plenty of research out there and plenty has been written about long-term stress. What most of it shows is that a little stress can be good for us. It can help us handle intense situations, help us focus and amp the body up to meet a challenge. When that stress continues for long periods of time the result is burnout — physically and mentally.

Those effects, it seems, are also amplified in individuals with ADHD. While I’ve never been diagnosed with ADHD, the symptom list reads very familiar — difficulty following a conversation, reading without getting distracted, forgetfulness, etc. A paper by Dr. Sarina J. Grosswald, an NIH-funded researcher at the Center for Natural Health and Prevention, which you can find here,  outlines how chronic stress not only amplifies the effects of ADHD, but actually damages neural connections. In the paper, she notes that, “Chronic stress damages or kills neuronal connections. As much as 34% reduction in cells in the prefrontal cortex have been reported [11]”. Later, when she outlines the similarities between chronic stress and ADHD, it reads like a catalog of my day.

Past the studies and the research and the Washington Post articles, I just don’t feel right. I never seem to feel rested. My body is tense. I can’t sleep through the night and (as I noticed in a recent headshot taken for work), I just look like crap. That’s not exactly how I want to feel now or in a few months when Nick and I get married. I want to feel happy, joyful and relaxed.

I’ve also noticed that my “brain training” scores in Lumosity are plummeting — not exactly a confidence building result.

So, what’s a girl to do aside from quit her job and run for the hills? I think the answer is to learn how to better deal with the stress I have and to make time to take care of that prefrontal cortex. The better I’m handling stress, the better I will be able to perform at work and in life. I might even look better in our engagement pictures.

In a TEDx talk by Kelly McGonigal, she says that stress isn’t killing us, just how we think about stress. That’s extremely oversimplified, but the general idea.

So I need to think differently about my stress and remember why I’m doing the work that I’m doing in the first place.

I’m also trying to get more sleep. My regular sleep schedule is something like bed at 12:30 a.m., sleep till 6:30 a.m. at which point the alarm goes off and I snooze for an hour. It leaves me feeling rushed and frazzled for the rest of day (not to mention, tired).

So my prefrontal cortex self-care plan goes a little something like this:

  1. Sleep
  2. Yoga
  3. Sleep
  4. Think better thoughts about stress
  5. Sleep
  6. Meditate
  7. Do something fun

I know that I won’t see the results overnight, but I’ve got to start somewhere. Maybe in 30 days, I’ll start to feel slightly better. If not, my vacation home to see my dad should help.

What do you do to fight stress? What do you do when you’re so overwhelmed you can’t think straight? Seriously, I want to know. 🙂




  • Vonnie

    October 26, 2014 at 1:16 pm Reply

    as a self-employed consultant, I’ve been there and I still get there sometimes. I committed to daily meditation for the new year and 10 months later, the change is profound. It was even after 2 months. I use an app called Omvana, silva method meditations (morning one is a fave) and guided meditations from youtube, and toning meditations from I fall asleep to hypnosis by Joseph Clough, guided sleep meditations and chakra alignments on YouTube. Guided meditations are like training wheels, help focus the monkey mind. Now, a little background music, 3-4 breaths and I’m good, but it took a while to get there. Prioritize and practice saying no. Take care of your self…it’s the only self you have! You are brilliant! Love and light to you!

    • admin

      October 26, 2014 at 8:11 pm Reply

      Oh, love and light back to you! I am so happy that you’ve found something that works for you. I LOVE meditation, but of course it is the first thing I skip when the days are packed. Thank you for the wonderful reminder and for sharing what has helped you. 🙂

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