Start with the Why:

Effect of stress on brain function & performance

We all know that stress and anxiety, especially if experienced on a regular basis (perhaps, as part of a job), can be detrimental both to our physiological and psychological well-being. In the case of language professionals, stress and anxiety can “double”.

First, there is a job-related stress caused, for example, by a tight deadline for a translation project or an intense atmosphere of interpreting during a medical emergency or demanding negotiations.

Second, because interpreters and translators often work in the context of traumatic circumstances involving fellow human beings, such as abuse/crime victim services, life-and-death medical encounters, and many others, language professionals are at risk of vicarious trauma, burnout and compassion fatigue. This happens because linguists essentially serve as “intermediaries” or “channels” for these distressing messages.

An important step in recognizing the symptoms and mitigating the negative effects of stress and vicarious trauma is learning how your brain functions, how it reacts to stress, and how its stress response affects your performance as a language professional, and your overall welfare.

Of course, the organization and function of a human brain is extremely complex, and scientific research into the inner workings of the “gray matter” is ongoing. Here we tried to present relevant findings in a relatable manner. This information is in no way all inclusive, but it should allow language professionals to understand why it is important to know how your brain reacts to stress, and how it impacts your ability to perform linguistic tasks.

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Did you know?…

Do you want to learn more about how the brain works? The Sentis Brain Animation Series takes you on a tour of the brain through a series of short and sharp animations.

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Understand how your brain works*

We have two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two legs, so why not two brains?

Two brains? Left and right hemispheres

The brain is divided into two halves, or hemispheres, right and left. The two hemispheres perform different sets of tasks and control different sets of functions.

The right hemisphere primarily deals with visual activities and plays a role in recognition of visual information. For example, it takes in a visual of an object and says, “I recognize that! That’s a table,” or “That’s a cat“, or “That’s a baby.” It synthesizes or groups information together.

The left hemisphere tends to perform more analytical tasks; it analyzes and sequences the information collected by the right. It takes information from the right hemisphere and applies language to it. The right hemisphere “sees” a cat, but the left hemisphere says, “Yes, I know whose cat that is! It’s my neighbor’s cat.“

Flip the images below to see what tasks and functions two brains – left and right hemispheres – are each responsible for.

LEFT HEMISPHERE

Logical | Analytical | Sequential | Rational | Objective

|   Language

|   Verbalization

|   Writing

|   Listening

|   Grammar

|   Sequencing

|   Mathematics

|   Computation

|   Reasoning

|   Facts

RIGHT HEMISPHERE

Synthesizing | Holistic | Random | Intuitive | Subjective

Visual information   |

Visualization   |

Non-verbal cues   |

Face recognition   | 

Motion detection   |

Music & arts awareness   | 

Imagination   | 

Emotions   | 

Intuition   | 

Feelings   |

So what happens if one side of the brain is injured?

People who have an injury to the right side of the brain may no longer be able to “put things together” and fail to process important information. As a result, they often fail to recognize that something is actually wrong and develop sort of a “denial syndrome“. They may say, “There’s nothing wrong with me.” For example, a person with an injury to the right hemisphere, especially the back part that deals with visual information, may have a loss of vision and not even recognize it. Because the right side of the brain is injured, it fails to “collect” information, so the brain does not realize that something is missing. Essentially, the person might be blind on one side and not know it.

The left side of the brain deals more with language and helps to analyze information given to the brain. A person with an injury to the left hemisphere is usually aware that things aren’t working (since the right hemisphere is doing its job) but is not unable to solve complex problems or do a complex activity. People with left hemisphere injuries tend to be more depressed, have more organizational problems, and have problems using language.

Understanding how two sides of the brain work and how injuries affect the two hemispheres differently will now help us understand how stress and anxiety may affect your performance as a language professional, and your well-being in general.

Understand how stress and anxiety affect your brain function

Scientific research (for example, Lee et al, 2015; Blakeslee, 1999; Hecht, 2010; Knapton, 2016) proves that stress, specifically anxious apprehension (Yates, 2007)  – the type of stress experienced by an interpreter during a stressful encounter or a translator working on a document with distressing content – has a differing effect on the left and right sides of the brain. Stress and anxiety hinder the left brain activity, and send the right hemisphere into the overdrive (Knapton, 2016). Since stress and anxiety has a much higher impact on the left side of the brain – the side responsible for language, speaking, listening and analyzing the information – it essentially causes similar symptoms as an injury to the left hemisphere and hinders the performance of an otherwise skillful linguist.

[During a stressful encounter] …the left side of the brain shuts down and the right side of the brain takes over. Unfortunately for an interpreter, language is controlled by the left brain. If an interpreter has experienced a similar event or feels empathy for the client, he or she may struggle with finding the appropriate words to interpret the client's experience. The interpreter may walk out of the appointment saying, "What just happened - I am normally so good at what I do?

Janice Rhyne, MNM, Program Manager Translation and Interpreting Center of Denver providing volunteer services to the Denver Center for Crime Victims “Vicarious Trauma Affecting Interpreters and Translators”, Ezine Articles, Mental Health section, 2010.

The very real nature of the [linguist’s] assignments has an emotional and physical impact that, if unaddressed, can significantly impair an individual's ability to perform their job. Language professionals may find that they are completing their assignments in a timely manner, but that they are unable to leave behind the images of their client's experience.

Janice Rhyne, MNM, Program Manager Translation and Interpreting Center of Denver providing volunteer services to the Denver Center for Crime Victims “Vicarious Trauma Affecting Interpreters and Translators”, Ezine Articles, Mental Health section, 2010.

Left

Hemisphere

DURING A STRESSFUL ASSIGNMENT OR PROJECT LEFT BRAIN SHUTS DOWN LEADING TO: 

Right

Hemisphere

DURING A STRESSFUL ASSIGNMENT OR PROJECT RIGHT BRAIN ASSUMES A DOMINANT ROLE.

Let’s check our progress!

What we have learned so far…

Start with the Why

Vicarious trauma vs. burnout

Start with the Why

Vicarious trauma in language professionals

Start with the Why

Effect of stress on brain function & performance

Professional Encounters

Before the encounter

Professional Encounters

During the encounter

Professional Encounters

After the encounter

What’s next?

Now that you know how your brain works and how stress and vicarious trauma impact your job performance and general well-being, learn what you can do before, during and after each professional encounter with a set of processes, tools and other useful resources available in our Wellness Connection for language professionals.