When I was 11 my dad took my younger siblings and I sledding at a friend’s house. They had an awesome hill in their backyard that was perfect for sledding…….except for the massive wood pile at the bottom of the hill. We sled on this hill usually every winter, though, so we became experts at sled-bailing – jumping, tumbling, stopping, or doing whatever we needed to do to get off the sled before slamming into the wood pile. All was good.
But on this day,
My dad brought along my youngest sister, 6 years old at the time, who hadn’t sled on this hill before. He walked us to the backyard, told us all to jump out of our sleds before we got to the wood pile, left me in charge of my sisters, then went inside to talk with his friends.
I went down a few times with my youngest sister in tow to ensure she got the hang of sled-bailing, and, after a few times down the hill (or maybe it was just once), my 11-year-old self determined my 6-year-old sister had most certainly learned how to sled-bail, and I set out on my own and let her do the same.
What happened next forever will be etched in my brain. I went down the hill by myself and still was at the bottom about to walk back to the top when my 6-year-old sister positioned herself face first on her sled and took off down the hill. I remember her coming toward me, I remember catching her eyes and seeing sheer panic in them, I remember reaching out to her and just barely missing her hand, I remember yelling “Bail, bail, bail” and I remember her plowing face-first into the pile of logs. When I got to her, blood was pouring out of her nose, which definitely was broken, and she was screaming like a wild banshee. That effectively ended that day of sledding.
It was my fault. I could have stopped it.
When I recalled the event later to my parents, my sisters were confused. You see, my memory of the event was different than theirs, and not just because we all played different roles.
I remember the event lasting 10-15 seconds. I remember I could have grabbed her to pull her off her sled because she was just inches away and because her sled was going so slowly. But that wasn't reality. In fact, I was several feet away from her and that’s why I couldn’t reach her. From the time she left the top to the time she hit the wood, only about 4 or 5 seconds elapsed, and she was going too fast for me to have gotten to her in time.
How did my brain get this event so wrong?
I’m an intelligent person. I process things well. So what the heck happened?
How Stress Affects the Brain(short version)
There's this thing called the Stress Response System we all have that gets activated during times of stress. This is good because it helps us survive; but, to do so, it alters normal functioning of the brain -- powering down the prefrontal cortex (the part that processes and stores memories, among other things) and powering up the brain stem (the part in control of survival processes). Activation of the Stress Response System happens automatically.
THE BRAIN STEM DOESN'T CARE HOW YOU REMEMBER THE STRESSFUL EVENT OR EVEN IF YOU REMEMBER THE EVENT AT ALL; IT CARES THAT YOU SURVIVE THE EVENT.
And that stressful event can range from having to take a final exam, to being in a car accident, to experiencing unwanted sexual advances, to losing your job, to watching your 6-year-old sister face plant into a wood pile.
What does that mean?
Well, the altered brain functioning during times of stress can have multiple implications and not every person is affected in the same way, nor is the same person affected the same way during each stressful experience.
Someone might not remember details of the event. Someone might remember details but not in chronological order. Someone might remember details with pristine clarity they don’t normally have. Basically, the memory software is glitching and is reading things in a way it normally doesn’t .
Crime, Academics, Productivity, and More
People who have experienced extreme or chronic stress may struggle with the memory of that event, but also memories of events that happen after the stressor as the brain switches from stress mode back to normal mode (whatever normal is for them).
That Sounds Awful. How Do I Make That Not Happen?
You can't do much to avoid an automatic physiological response; however, there are things you can do to flip the switch faster.
Stress is experienced by everyone and our brains will respond based on prior experiences and the severity level of the stress. We all don't have to be neuroscientists (brain nerds) to know the basics of how stress affects the brain. Just a little bit of knowledge is helpful when dealing with your own stress, or dealing with others under stress.