AORN Blog - The Periop Life

3 Ways to Stress-Proof Your Brain

Illustration of brain using lines and dots.
February 27, 2022


A little stress can actually have positive effects. It can sharpen your senses and help you zero in on the task at hand. When you are in this zone, you are at peak performance, whether you’re an OR nurse or a professional athlete.

Unfortunately, too much stress (which most of us have) does the opposite, leaving you distracted and unable to think critically, according to performance coaches Spence Byrum and Torrie Higgins. Bryrum, a former military pilot and expert on enhancing individual and team decision making in high-risk industries, and Higgins, an expert in performance psychology, are gearing up to train periop nurses on optimizing stress at the Leadership Summit 2022 next month.

The first training skill they will teach is how to know when you are stressed — when your heart is racing, your major muscle groups are tight and/or your breathing becomes irregular.

These physiological signs of stress have to do with a cascade of chemical responses that cause blood flow changes in your brain, Higgins explains. “The blood that was in the front of your brain fueling cognitive areas for critical thinking suddenly moves to activate the back of your brain to fuel your primal fight or flight response.”

Byrum likens this blood shift to a hijacking of your brain back to the basic survival mechanism early humans needed to literally fight or flee for their lives.

Since this survival mechanism isn’t very useful in the OR, we wondered, are there ways to control stress and prevent it from taking over?

Byrum and Higgins’ simple answer is “yes,” but they acknowledge it takes awareness, advance planning, and active physical and mental restoration to stress-proof your brain.

Here’s where to start:

  1. Recognize your cognitive load of life stressors

Ask yourself how stress shows in your life …do you rehash the past or physically tense up when you feel overcome by stress? By knowing your stress indicators, Higgins says you can be more aware when too much stress creeps in.

Then “create a plan for managing basic low-value tasks you can control before, during and after your work in the OR,” Byrum advises. For example, look at your morning routine and make simple proactive solutions such as having a set place for your keys, so you aren’t late hunting for them.

  1. Plan for stressors on the job

Periop teams can work together to plan for variables they can control, such as coordinating with the preop team to optimize the patient for surgery, so delays don’t compound throughout the day, Byrum suggests. “Think about how a skier prepares for an Olympic slalom race by moving through every twist and turn and making a plan to minimize disruptions that can slow them down—surgical teams can do the same thing to control variables that will reduce stress.”

  1. Prioritize time for ACTIVE stress recovery

Build recovery into your schedule religiously because downtime is just as essential for your body as eating or sleeping, Higgins suggests. This does not mean lounging on the couch and checking your social media. “We need active recovery to reduce the neurobiological toll stress creates.”

Think about restorative actions you can take for your body and mind, such as mindful breathing, exercise, meaningful social connection, and healthy sleep strategies that help you perform better (something Byrum learned as a pilot).

“Remember that your body needs a full eight hours of sleep or close to it,” Byrum reminds. “The first four hours of rest restores your body and the last four hours of sleep restores your mind—if you are cutting your sleep short, you are starting the day with a tired brain.”

Practice stress-proofing tactics and get more expert coaching on boosting cognitive performance to thrive through high-pressure situations at Byrum and Higgins’ Leadership Summit 2022 education session, Code Black: When Stress Hijacks Your Brain in the OR. Register today.

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