Motivation and Stress

Motivation and Stress

We visited the concept of motivation and happiness yesterday, so today, let’s take a look at the impact of stress on motivation (and visa versa). Knowing what you know about motivation thus far, think you can guess what the verdict is on this one? Let’s take a look.


To begin, let’s dig into neuroscience. Researchers have done some fascinating research on how stress affects the structures of the brain that are responsible for motivation—we know that motivation lives in different parts of our brain in different capacities. Higher functioning structures like the Prefrontal Cortex are responsible for the decision making, planning, and purpose behind motivation, while the lower functioning structures like the brainstem are responsible for the autonomic reactions that move us in the direction of an action, responsible for the deep desire towards pleasure and all the good stuff. And interestingly, stress impacts the way motivation works in these structures differently.


When stress is applied to the Prefrontal Cortex, that’s when we feel some of those psychological impacts like depression and anxiety—it doesn’t often feel great emotionally when we’re stressed, does it? And because of what we know about happiness and motivation, we know that this negatively impacts motivation. On the flip side, when stress is applied to some of those more animalistic brain structures, it spurs us into action. We begin seeking food, sex, pleasure, and just general forward motion when those structures are stressed.


And what we take from this is that stress has a complicated relationship with motivation. While sometimes we may react to stress with intense, energetic motivation to get ourselves on the other side of whatever is stressing us out, sometimes it can do the opposite—sometimes we freeze as a result of stress. This idea gets back to the idea that in some capacity, stress has an adaptive evolutionary benefit. We must balance the tipping point, the part that leads us into paralysis and nonproductivity.