Stress Significantly Interferes with Multi-Tasking

Shifting attention from one task to another is more difficult for men under stress than for men who aren’t, according to recent research by scientists from Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, The Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical College. Studies on rats that had similar results led to this research. Stress appeared to diminish the ability to shift from one task to another and decrease the functioning of the medial prefrontal cortex. The effects of stress, though, appeared to be reversed within one month.

In the study, male medical students under stress from preparing for the board finals were compared with similar non-stressed group, both groups who had reported their stress levels beforehand on a standardized perceived-stress scale. The men underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while being tested for responsiveness to task changes, a change of focus, or response-reversal. The group under stress did much more poorly on changing focus, but not on response-reversal.

Previous studies on rats found that different parts of the brain were involved in focus change and response-reversal. The orbital frontal cortex appeared to grow in response to stress, thought to be associated with response-reversal, whereas nerve cells of the medial prefrontal cortex, thought to be associated with focus change actually shriveled. It seems the same changes occur in human males.

Leader of the study, Conor Liston, an M.D.-Ph.D. Student at Rockefeller and Cornell, says, “Stress is doing a whole lot of things in your brain that we don’t understand yet, but we know that it is intimately involved in a wide range of neuropsychiatric disorders.” He hopes to research this in women too, and suggests that such research may be helpful in stress-related psychiatric conditions.

© Copyright 2009 by Jolyn Wells-Moran, PhD, MSW, therapist in Seattle, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Nicole

    Nicole

    February 3rd, 2009 at 1:43 PM

    I knew it all along- women are just better at multitasking than men are! :-) Just kidding. This is in fact very intersting research. I only hope that once again women are not left by the wayside in research like this because too often it seems that study groups with women in them are fewer than what they are for males. This really seems to shortchange the overall health care that women receive don’t you think? But back on track. It does not surprise me at all that doctors are just now gaining a broader awareness of just how challenging it can be to deal with so much stress and just how much of a toll that it can take on our bodies.

  • Nancy

    Nancy

    February 4th, 2009 at 6:16 AM

    I would be willing to bet that stress is the number one reason why people call in sick to work so much and why many fall into depressive episodes. I think that stress simply wreaks havoc with our bodies and we are willing particiapnts in this. I have over the past few years made the vow to leave work at work, and to focus only on home when I am there. This has allowed me so much more freedom than I was experiencing a few years ago. Yoga classes and meditation have also given me another positive outlet for dealing with my emotions and giving me another fantastic way to get the stress out of my life.

  • Will

    Will

    February 5th, 2009 at 2:05 PM

    How can one even consider being able to function at a normal level when we are all carrying around so much stress? It has wreacked havoc in my life for a very long time now and now I am paying for it with the consequences. My heart is failing and I have no energy. I have tried therapy before but it did not ultimately help me to resolve my issues. What are some other things I could try? I see that someone else posted about yoga but that just is not me.

  • Tod

    Tod

    February 7th, 2009 at 8:40 AM

    I have recently become exceedingly overwhelmed with the amount of stress in my life. That combined with the crazy economic times are working it over on me, my family, my entire existence. There seems to be no way to escape it.

  • Hope

    Hope

    February 25th, 2009 at 6:59 PM

    This was a very interesting read. Its true, stress does interfere with a lot of things. In the early part of my marriage I remember on days when we fought bad and unfairly, I used to sit at work in a daze not able to focus and concentrate and be extremely forgetful. I used to find it difficult to have a workflow and some days things used to be so bad that I had to go home in the afternoon. I knew it hampers your productivity and it was definitely interesting to know that multi tasking goes out of the window when you are all stressed out.

  • Rick

    Rick

    February 28th, 2009 at 7:14 AM

    I had a bad tiff with my wife today and I cant work at all. I think multi tasking is basically a lot of concentration and focus on the tasks at hand. When emotional unrest is there tasking or multi tasking is impossible.

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