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The Surprising Way to Deal with Work Stress

When you're under the gun, you're more likely to goof up. But distracting yourself, believe or not, can help you zone in. Here's how to do it.

Ever place your keys in your pocket, only to start looking for them a half-second later? According to a study performed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, it’s not because you’re going crazy—it’s because you’re stressed.

In the study, researchers placed rats in a maze designed to test working memory. The goal was to find a chocolate chip. As the rodents set off searching for their prize, the researchers blasted them with loud bursts of white noise to induce stress, a variable that was omitted in a separate run of the maze. When the rats were hit with distracting white noise, they reached their goal only 65% of the time, and many happened upon their snack only by chance. When they were allowed to navigate the maze without an auditory interference, they reached their goal some 90% of the time.

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When the rats were blasted with the white noise, the neurons of their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for ultra-short-term memory) stopped firing correctly. In other words, they couldn’t hold their concentration. “We’ve known for a long time that stress impairs cognitive function,” says Craig Berridge, Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at UW-Madison, and the brains behind the study. “It’s been estimated that as much as 50% of workplace accidents occur because of stress-related distraction.”

What this means for you is that when you’re under the gun, you’re more likely to goof up because your brain isn’t firing correctly. The key is to beat stress to the punch— instead of letting stress distract your subconscious, find a distraction to make yourself immune.

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“Things like [music, exercise, and meditation] could dampen the effects of stress,” Berridge says. So if you find yourself under pressure at work, put your favorite song or album on in the background. It may distract you from your worries long enough to get you back on track.

Being organized can also help lower your stress levels— so check out our top three apps that will whip your life into shape.

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