My sainted mother once said to me, “When I get anxious, I get stupid.” She was anxious a lot, and with good reason. Seven kids, four of them boys (including a pair of twin boys), and all of them Burrowes children.
Her husband was caught in the publish or perish grist mill of university life, where grant renewals created regular uncertainty, as did departmental politics, state funding cuts, and shifting public policies. Dad would occasionally disappear on scientific expeditions for weeks at a time (no cell phones, no landlines, no nothing), leaving Mom with a houseful of teenagers–oh, joy!
Mom looked after aging parents, who chose to make their final home five miles from where she was still very much raising children. Grandpa was a type I diabetic with a bad heart, Grandma eventually succumbed to a lymphatic cancer. Good thing Mom was a registered nurse who could provide her parents free hospice care, huh?
Mom’s life was hard, and she and I often didn’t get along. I sometimes thought she wasn’t very bright and her summation of parenting me was, “No job worth doing is easy.”
She was plenty bright–very bright, in fact–but she was pushed beyond her limits, and that, it turns out can make us dumb. As somebody who deals with child welfare law, I bump up against psychological testing a lot. I’ve heard many experts testify that our intelligence in particular is a stable trait over the course of our lives.
Turns out, Mom was right and the experts are wrong. If you test intelligence when people are under stress, they will score lower–by as much as thirteen points in some studies–than they test when the stress has been alleviated.
This works whether you’re testing Indian sugarcane farmers waiting, waiting, waiting for the harvest to begin, or Princeton mall shoppers who are barely getting by.
The effect of being broke, worried, and without a safety net has the same cognitive impact as always, always, going through life as if you didn’t get any sleep last night. When it comes to stress–exhaustion, money woes, health concerns, loneliness, mental health issues, job worries–that which does not kill you makes you dumber, less able to cope, and less able to think strategically–at least temporarily. With this fact in mind, I hope we re-evaluate our 60-hour work weeks, 24-hour medical rotations for doctors, and miserly attitudes toward family leave.
I think romance readers, like my mom, know what the experts are only now proving. Readers know that if they dwell for too long amid the stressors of life, if they never take a break from worry and work, they can’t be at their best. They know that for a few bucks, a well written novel can hold all of the to-dos, must-dos, and honey-dos at bay long enough to allow for some breathing room and heartsease.
They know that a good book can help life feel more manageable. I’ve never met a reader who said that her TBR pile made her smarter, but in fact, it just might be doing exactly that.
How do you keep the stress from stealing your wits? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed ARC of No Other Duke Will Do.