Stress Can Hurt Doctors' Cognition — Here's What Helps

Social connection can help restore critical thinking.

Posted Apr 07, 2020

Fear has a uniquely negative impact on the brain, and U.S. healthcare workers are feeling it like never before. With the coronavirus outbreak, a critical shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) is forcing doctors and nurses to face a threat to their own lives. 

ER doctors are trained to face the overwhelming. 

Dr. Nicole Battaglioli sounds like a battle commander when she calmly discusses how she typically assesses crises. For instance, when facing mass casualties, she helps her team function by prepping them for worst-case scenarios. An ER attending at Grady Hospital in downtown Atlanta which sees 100,000 patients a year, Dr. Battaglioli is no stranger to chaos.

When considering the overwhelming, Dr. Battaglioli says, “Those are the situations where we feel sort of a call to action. That’s where we can really help.” But COVID-19 is different, even for her. “It's hard to balance that sense of duty with just how afraid we are and how underprepared we feel. This is why we went into medicine, to help people. But it's hard to help people when you’re afraid of what you're going to experience.”

“It’s a totally new and different experience,” she explains. “If I have somebody coming in from a motor vehicle accident, at risk for loss of life and limb, I know how to treat that. I'm not afraid that I'm going to be hit by a car. There’s a modicum of control that we have.”

What happens in the nervous system when we feel our lives are threatened?

When people fear for their own lives, the body activates the sympathetic nervous system. Known as the fight or flight response, this prompts specific changes to ready the body for action. Heart rate and breathing speed up, energy in the form of sugars and fats are released into the bloodstream, and muscles tense. Even our sensation of pain is blunted in preparation for possible combat. 

Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash
Source: Photo by H Shaw on Unsplash

But sympathetic activation also turns the brain toward a particular type of thinking, and impairs higher-level cognition. The fight or flight response initiates an attentional bias toward the threat, making it hard to pay attention to anything else. It also makes thinking more rigid, and that makes creative problem solving much harder.

According to one study, "Broadly, stress impairs attention and working memory, increasing vulnerability to cognitive overload.” This, in turn, can negatively impact our ability to learn new skills in a threatening situation.

“We do not know who is infected or when or if we are in contact with the disease. Our nervous system is now adaptively required to be in a chronic state of alertness, which means we are chronically defensive,” says Stephen Porges, Ph.D., Professor of Psychiatry at UNC and the neuroscientist who discovered the Polyvagal Theory

“States of chronic defensiveness impact on our mental and physical health and cognitive processes. Cognitive decisions are poorer when the decision-makers are in chronic states of defense and hypervigilance.” The higher-level thinking doctors need right now becomes clouded. 

Anxiety affects decision-making.

COVID-19 came so quickly that there were no protocols in place on the night Dr. Battaglioli first faced it. She was in the middle of an overnight shift when she was pulled and told go see a group of patients suspected of having COVID-19. She ignored her anxiety and got to work, because that’s what doctors do under pressure.

The patients were in the triage area, an open space where all sorts of other people were waiting. Both Dr. Battaglioli and the possible coronavirus patients were wearing the recommended surgical masks, so she focused on “throughput” and got the patients sorted out to go home or get further evaluation. Only later that night could she reflect. 

Not long after, she fell ill. 

Did the anxiety provoked by being pulled unexpectedly to see these patients impact her? “Yes,” she says. It definitely affected things. That night, I found myself saying, ‘No, I don't have the cognitive ability to take on anything else. This is what I'm doing tonight and this is all I'm doing tonight.’”

When we spoke, she reflected on returning to work the next day. She echoes the feelings of so many health professionals when she says, “This is the only time in my career when I have experienced anxiety. I've cried. And I've been afraid of what I will encounter when I go into work, and afraid that I may not be able to protect myself.” 

How can we help healthcare workers feel safe? 

The obvious conclusion is that helping healthcare workers feel safe as they care for patients is a priority, and safety equipment is a big part of that. But another piece of the puzzle is something medicine has relied on for generations: camaraderie.

According to Porges, “Our nervous systems crave moments of safety (i.e., predictability) and reassurance from those we trust. When trusting individuals are not available, our nervous systems try to guide us to safety but often they map a journey of defense and not cooperation. The ONLY offset/reset of our nervous system is through co-regulation — feeling safe with a select group of trusted individuals. At times it might be the family dog.”

On a typical day in hospitals and offices, you’ll hear doctors and nurses talking through tough cases and sharing their personal lives. Informal debriefing and socialization are built into the way medical teams function, a natural way to bring biological resources back online. The question is how to provide that for medical teams working in the epicenters of the pandemic, where relaxed moments are hard to come by.

An earlier version of this article was published at Forbes.com.