All work requires energy. This is true for physical work and for all of the tasks the brain does that collectively can be thought of as thinking. Left unchecked, stress can be mentally exhausting, stealing energy away from important cognitive tasks and hindering our ability to perform strenuous mental work. With that understanding in mind, it’s not surprising that the neurohacking community is very keen to understand how to better support stress resilience in order to free up more mental energy.
What Happens When Mental Energy Is Depleted?
Mental energy isn’t unlimited: it’s a finite resource that can get depleted. And almost every important thing we need the brain to do, including developing and utilizing coping skills for increased stress resilience, competes for it.
If we are “zoning out” or on “auto-pilot,” it’s a clue that we’ve exhausted the ability to invest mental effort into what we are doing. In other words, it’s a sign the finite pool of mental energy is, at least temporarily, insufficient to meet our needs.
If we are “zoning out” or on “auto-pilot” it’s a clue we may be running low on mental energy.
When we exhaust mental energy, we’re essentially left with two options: eliminating some of the demands that are depleting our mental effort or boosting our mental energy (our ability to put maximum mental effort into more things). With more energy we can do more and be more—our performance can be optimized.
Stress can play a role directly or indirectly in both options. Stress is mentally fatiguing, so stressful demands can be thought of as mental energy depleters. When we are running low on mental energy, finding and eliminating sources of stress is important. And engaging in behaviors that build more stress resistance and resilience can allow us to put more mental effort into what we do.
Defining Stress Resistance and Stress Resilience
In a cognitively demanding context, acute stress responses are usually adaptive (i.e., they are the body’s attempt to better match us to the circumstances). Increased heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, pupil dilation, energy mobilization, and focused attention, are examples of physiological responses that increase our chances for survival in an acutely threatening or stressful situation. Some of these same physiological responses occur during periods of intense cognitive demands
But when stress responses cross the threshold from being adaptive to maladaptive (i.e., the response is not providing adequate or appropriate adjustments to the environment or situation), the stress response itself can hinder performance and stress becomes problematic. Both stress resistance and stress resilience help us keep stress in its place and even benefit from it. The good news is that these attributes can be enhanced by applying a principle called hormesis.
Stress resistance is usually used to mean a person has a greater ability to tolerate stress exposure and maintain adaptive responses to stress before experiencing the negative effects of stress. In a sense, it means a person will be less bothered by something many other people find stressful. In cognitively demanding circumstances, stress resistance often manifests as an ability to maintain a relaxed and positive mood that benefits performance.
Stress resilience has more to do with overcoming stress: It is typically used to mean that a person has a greater capacity to recover after experiencing the negative effects of stress. Stress (emotional) resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back from a stressful situation and not letting it affect our intrinsic motivation. Both stress resistance and resilience are important characteristics in demanding contexts.
Stress (emotional) resilience can be thought of as the ability to bounce back from a stressful situation and not letting it affect our intrinsic motivation.
Stress resilience is a topic spoken about at length in Rich Diviney’s, The Attributes: 25 Hidden Drivers of Optimal Performance, a new favorite on our reading list. Diviney argues how important it is to not mistake stress resilience for durability. Why? Because it’s possible for a person to simply have a high capacity for suffering, while pretending to be happy, which is not the same at all. Stress resilience allows us to quickly, efficiently, and genuinely return to our baseline while healing the damage caused by the highs and lows.
The Science Behind Stress Resistance and Resilience
Resistance to and resilience from stress is far more than a mindset. Brain functions, neurochemical systems, and physiological processes are part of manifesting stress resistance and resilience. After all, if zoning out was stress relieving, as a society we’d feel a lot less stressed. Being in a flow state isn’t being “zoned out;” it’s a heightened state of focus, which takes an investment of mental effort.
If zoning out was stress relieving, as a society we’d feel a lot less stressed. Being in a flow state isn’t being “zoned out;” it’s a heightened state of focus, which takes an investment of mental effort.
For example, a central pathway in the regulation of stress responses and mood is the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex network of interactions between the two regions of the brain—hypothalamus and the pituitary gland—and the adrenal glands. The HPA axis regulates the production of several important molecules that coordinate the adaptive stress response, such as the stress hormone cortisol, for example[3,4].
But how can we support our stress response so as to free up mental energy for greater cognitive tasks?
Utilizing Adaptogens and Nootropics to Support a Healthier Stress Response
Some herbs are categorized as being adaptogens, which means they support aspects of stress resistance and resilience. Adaptogens typically act by promoting homeostasis, exerting a normalizing or stabilizing impact on physiological processes.
Studies demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect and increase mental work capacity, especially against a background of stress and fatigue, particularly in tolerance to mental exhaustion and enhanced attention.
Studies demonstrate that adaptogens exert an anti-fatigue effect and increase mental effort capacity against a background of stress and fatigue.
Nootropics are substances that enhance cognitive function and performance in healthy individuals. Nootropics do so by supporting and protecting, either directly or indirectly, the functional and structural status of the brain. Several nootropic compounds support the ability to respond to stress.
Qualia Nootropic Energy Shot contains a mix of adaptogenic and nootropic ingredients that support healthy stress responses. Here are four ingredients included in the formulation to support stress resistance and resilience:
Cereboost™ American Ginseng Root Extract is a clinically studied adaptogen made from American ginseng that helps counter fatigue and stress. In studies, it has enhanced cognitive performance by supporting attention, working memory, executive function, and feelings of calmness.[5,6,7,8].
Celastrus paniculatus Seed Extract—the intellect tree—seeds have been used in South Asia as a brain tonic to support mental acuity, learning, memory, and mental energy. [9,10,11].
L-theanine may help with adaptation to mentally fatiguing or stressful circumstances and supports alpha brain waves, focused attention, mental alertness, and calm, relaxed energy.[12-25].
N-Acetyl-L-Tyrosine [NALT) supplies the amino acid L-tyrosine, which is a building block for dopamine and catecholamine neurotransmitter molecules. These neurotransmitters are used for brain activities involved in motivation, focus, and executive functions.[26-32].
Effort is a form of work. And all work requires energy. Energy is a big part of what we think about at Neurohacker Collective. We are at heart a performance optimization company. With more energy we can do more and be more—performance can be optimized. Without enough energy, performance optimization won’t be on the menu.
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