55). In other words, stress can create a life-long physiological change in and impairment of brain and body functioning. Such recent findings suggest that victims of stress may in fact suffer from a neurological disorder rather than just from a character flaw, mental weakness, or bad luck.
Chronic stress can impact individual perception and thinking in significant ways. Research in cognitive neuropsychology has been particularly helpful in identifying some of these patterns. Psychiatrists at the Dartmouth Medical School have identified certain common styles of thinking present in those who as a result of traumatic stress suffer from chronic life stress (Mueser, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 2009, pp. 99-120). These thought patterns, or schemas, shape the individual's perception of the world and have a degree of negative control over their emotions (Mueser, Rosenberg, & Rosenberg, 2009). The problem is that they are inaccurate and destructive thoughts and beliefs. They exacerbate distress rather than alleviate it. For example, such stress-influenced minds have a tendency to catastrophize (worst case scenario), overgeneralize the negative by jumping to conclusions, and think in terms of extremes and absolutes ("the world is all bad" or "I'm a failure since I'm not perfect") (Mueser, Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 2009). They also overestimate the risk of bad things happening, attribute truth to their feelings ("I feel sad, so my life must be hopeless"), inaccurately blame themselves when they are not responsible for something, and ignore the positive by focusing strictly on the negative (Mueser, Rosenberg & Rosenberg, 2009). The person suffering from this kind of stress, therefore, is in the grip of false perceptions and their resulting negative emotions. Their ability to manage life experience in an unstressful way is impaired unless they are able to find ways to change their beliefs and interpretations of the world and of themselves.
Stress has been linked to more serious impairments such as PTSD, depression, somatic disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. Bremner (2002) argued that these disorders may be considered in relationship to a "common stress-induced neurological deficit" (p. 34). That is to say, stress actually changes the way the brain operates. In even more extreme cases, studies have shown clear connections between stress and the mental disorder of schizophrenia (Lewine, 2005). While most researchers understand that there are genetic predispositions in those who develop schizophrenia, they generally realize that environmental factors combine with this inherited vulnerability to produce the disorder (Lewine, 2005). In other words, stress contributes to the formation and perpetuation of schizophrenia. It effects the person's cognitive appraisal of the environment, which when fused with biological predispositions give rise to serious mental distress and distortions.
Lewine (2005) examined the kinds of stress that research has connected with the development of schizophrenic thought patterns. Such stressors include childhood trauma (e.g., parental loss) or confusing family relations involving hyper-criticism, emotional over-involvement, and hostility. Further, the manifestation of schizophrenia itself is a source of stress owing to the external and uncontrollable nature of hallucinations and the "direct distortions in information processing, affect, and interpersonal relationships" (Lewine, 2005, p. 291). Schizophrenics tend to find social life more threatening than the average person (Lewine, 2005). As a result of this, stress is increased and negatively impacts their rational capacities. Another contributing impact of stress on schizophrenic thinking is social stress and poverty, both of which contribute to demoralization, low self-esteem, alienation, and further life hardship since it creates such things as financial worry (Lewine, 2005). In sum, the extreme case of schizophrenia illustrates how stress can impact thinking and mental processes (even if associated with genetic predispositions) by contributing to distorted interpretations of the environment and cognitive impairment that is stress sensitive and threat-oriented.
Memory is another important area of the mind that stress affects. Neuroscientists have shown that the areas of the brain associated with memory play an important role in the stress response and are sensitive to stress. Bremner (2002) stated, "One important outcome is long-term dysregulation of the brain chemical systems that we need to survive the immediate threat to our lives" (p. 107). The result of stress can cause fragmented memory and dissociation because it affects the hippocampus where memory is controlled (Bremner, 2002). Other studies showed that cortisol released during stress impairs memory, producing the spaced out feeling an individual feels when under