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My boss was killing me... one brain cell at a time

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Beyond making us unhappy, stress shrinks the brain making it more difficult to solve problems, think critically, remember things, and make decisions. Stress makes us less creative, less innovative, and less productive. Are your leaders contributing to that stress?

It's not a "ripped from the headlines" story, but I'm not exaggerating. My boss was literallykilling me.  It was years ago, and the fact that I'm writing this now indicates that I survived. However, it's a story worth telling because it's more common than you might think.


I wasn't always caught in the homicidal crosshairs. For almost 10 years, I loved my company, I loved my job, and worked with wildly dedicated, passionate, talented people. I was fortunate to have amazing mentors who gave me opportunities to contribute and who valued my contributions.   I was proud of the work I did, I learned a lot, and I looked forward to every new challenge.  

That was until the changing of the guards, or musical chairs at the grown-up table. New faces occupied the C-suites, and nervous feelings of trepidation swept over the troops waiting to see how these changes would impact each of us. 

My new boss - let's call him "John" - seemed okay at first, and I was determined to keep an open mind.  Positioned precariously beneath him on the org chart, my first order of business was to bring him up to speed on company history and industry knowledge. John knew very little about our company and even less about the industry.  Quickly, I discovered that he had even less interest in learning - anything.  After all, he was the chief; he had people for that. 

Not too far into his reign of terror, John made it very clear that he wouldn't hesitate to throw me or anyone else under the bus to elevate his standing with the CEO. He leaned across his desk, pointed his finger in my face, and communicated his expectations:  

"Your job is to make me look good and take the bullet for me when I don't.  Is that clear?"


Remember, I loved my job. When it comes to work, I'm a bit of a bulldog.  I'll dig in and work longer and harder than just about anyone.  I take great pride in anything that has my name on it,  and I thrive on exceeding expectations. So, I started pedaling harder and faster. 

But, this... this was different.  John's pompous insecurities, emotional immaturity, and nonexistent leadership skills created a fearful, "duck and take cover" CYA environment and trumped any chance for creativity, innovation, team success or individual satisfaction.  The only thing he actually created was stress.  

What I didn't know then was that the stress was killing me... literally...  one cell at a time.


The Science of Stress

We all know that stress feels bad.  It makes us irritable and grumpy, distracted and tense.  Eliminating stress completely is unrealistic partially because we're human and partially because of biology.  There are two main kinds of stress - acute stress and chronic stress - and acute stress can actually prime the brain for peak performance.  It's the fight or flight response that allows us to react to an immediate threat.  Some degree of acute stress is a good thing as it keeps the brain active and sharp. It's also what enables you to survive a life-threatening situation.  While it can help you survive a lion attack, that's not terribly practical on a typical day. 

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is the kind of stress that many experience on a daily basis.  This is the kind of stress that literally kills you at the cellular level.  More than 90% of doctors' visits are for stress-related illnesses.  Chronic stress changes your brain function and the structure of the brain right down to the DNA.  When your brain senses danger, it signals the hypothalamus, pituitary gland and the adrenal glands by your kidneys. Within minutes, the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine are released into your blood stream. An overproduction of these hormones makes you more vulnerable to everything from headaches, colds, and disease to impaired cognitive function.

10 Ways Stress Impacts the Brain and Body

  1. Cortisol narrows the arteries while the epinephrine increases heart rate, both of which force blood to pump harder and faster. The overproduction of cortisol can cause high blood pressure and heart attacks. 

  2. Cortisol induces the production of the neurotransmitter glutamate.  Glutamate creates free radicals that actually pierce the brain cell walls and cause them to rupture and die.  

  3. Too much cortisol decreases the production of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is like a natural fertilizer that keeps existing brain cells healthy and stimulates new brain cell growth.  

  4. Cortisol kills, shrinks, and inhibits neural generation in the hippocampus which is responsible for episodic memory, learning, and emotional regulation. 

  5. Too much cortisol creates architectural changes in the prefrontal cortex impairing executive decision-making and impulsivity control.  

  6. Stress has been called the #1 public enemy because it leads to a host of other health issues including weight gain, heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, sleeping disorders, and even cancer. 

  7. Stress builds up in your "fear center," or amygdala, and increases the neural connections in this part of the brain.  This perpetuates a vicious cycle of more fear and more anxiety which creates more cortisol.  

  8. Stress weakens your immune system making you more vulnerable to infectious and autoimmune diseases.

  9. Stress reduces the production of the "feel good" chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, which causes depression and is linked to addictive behaviors.

  10. Stress actually kills cells and shrinks the brain.

The Bottom Line 

As an educator, I always knew that kids performed better academically in a stress-free environment; I just never knew the science behind it.  Recent brain-based research now proves that stress actually impedes our ability to learn. Beyond making us unhappy, stress shrinks the brain making it more difficult to solve problems, think critically, remember things, and make decisions. Stress makes us less creative, less innovative, and less productive. 

Think about the people responsible for product development, customer service, quality control, sales, human resources, marketing... pick a department.  If you want these people to be smart, creative, innovative, positive, and engaged, it might be worth taking an honest look at the stress level in your culture.  Who - or what -  is your "John" and how is it impacting the collective brain cells of your organization?

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