Tension from activities as simple as watching a suspenseful movie or reading a speech in front of others is enough to interfere with problem-solving skills. A common beta blocker medication might provide an antidote. A pair of studies supporting this assertion was unveiled in November 2005 by Ohio State University neurologist David Q. Beversdorf, who led both tests. “When you are relaxed, you have more ready access” to problem-solving powers, he observes.

In the first study, student volunteers watched 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan, a graphic depiction of the World War II invasion of Normandy. After the movie clip, they had to complete a word-association task. The volunteers also saw 20 minutes of the animated comedy Shrek. The cartoon watchers’ test scores were 39 percent higher. Beversdorf concludes that the induced stress of the violent movie impaired mental flexibility.

The second investigation compared volunteers who had to give speeches in front of a panel of cold-looking “judges” with others who simply had to sit in a room and read. Some of the subjects were given the beta blocker drug propranolol, which is used to treat high blood pressure and migraines and which counteracts the stress hormone norepinephrine. Mental and physical tests administered after the activities indicated that the people taking propranolol experienced less stress and displayed greater cognitive flexibility than the other study volunteers.

A treatment for thought-impeding stress could hold great promise for people who suffer from serious anxiety disorders. For everyone else feeling pressed, a cartoon may be enough.