“I’m feeling stressed”

“I’m feeling stressed”. How often do we give this answer? We all know it can mean so many things. Yet frequently we refer to a sense of pressure and tension. We can learn from neuroscience that our response to stress is our brain and body’s attempt to protect and adapt to a threat. We can use this knowledge to look after ourselves and manage our stress more effectively.

What is stress?

There are different types of stress - the short - term stress response - related to a sudden stressor – such as a near accident or shocking news. There are ongoing stresses - the long term stress response - that grind on, for example those related to work, illness, financial and relationship concerns.

The organization of our brain

Simply put, our brain is made up of three parts; imagine looking at one of those big wooden golf clubs known as a driver with the head at the top. The lowest and earliest brain part – the ‘Reptilian Brain’ is like the inner swelling on the top of the shaft of the club. This is the brain stem and cerebellum growing out from the spinal cord and is responsible for the automatic functions of our heartbeat, balance and breathing. Wrapped around this is the middle part, – the second evolutionary layer– the ‘Mammalian Brain’. This is the ‘Limbic System’, the emotional centre of the brain, that instantly registers fear and assesses our experience in terms of safety or threat. The third outer layer is the ‘Neo Mammalian Brain’ or the ‘Neocortex’. This is the part that is responsible for abstract thought, planning and sophisticated reasoning.

We understand that the functions of our brain evolved for our protection. If a sense of danger is perceived the ‘limbic region’ instantly sounds the alarm and, before conscious thought, sets off one of three reactions; known as fight, flight or freeze- or the sympathetic nervous system responses.

The effects of stress

We can recognise this in ourselves when we are stressed. We feel our hear rate increase, our breathing changes and we can lose our appetite. We may become irritable, intolerant or aggressive. Others may seek to escape,literally and via drugs, alcohol or other behaviours. Some may be unable to respond, appear paralysed and isolate themselves. As reactions to the threat of attack by a predator such as a lion chasing us, these could be useful. We could fight, run away or pass as dead. Yet in our modern world these responses no longer always fit. We cannot attack our boss, abandon our families or just pretend to not be here.

The effects on our body of these stress reactions are profound. When we feel stressed the limbic system sounds the alarm, our brain releases and circulates chemicals, for example cortisol and adrenaline, designed to prepare us for short bursts of action to respond to the threat. This is a brilliant design and we hear of heroic feats when people lift cars, run incredible distances to save themselves or others.

Yet our daily looming stresses, the project due at work, the difficult boss, paying the mortgage, finding the rent, living with disability, prejudice, ill health are the ongoing stresses that our body reacts to as if they were constant life and death threats. The effects of these chemical responses in our bodies over an enduring period are harsh. If we stop to notice our bodies they may seem jittery and wired, or drained and sluggish. We talk of being burned out-and in fact it is true, we get ill more often as our immune system is compromised and we can get depressed.

Use our knowledge of the brain

So how do we harness our knowledge of the limbic brain in overdrive? We have a way to turn this knowledge of the brain’s functions to our benefit. Before anything we need to understand that our reaction is normal and just our brain-body trying to protect us… I suggest four ways to help our selves or FREE.

1. F is for Focus on the actual feeling. Firstly, simple though it may seem, we need to recognise what is going on - we need to call on the power of the outer thinking brain and use it to bring the inner limbic emotional centre under control.

We know we are stressed, but we need to identify what is going on more clearly. What do we feel? Am I angry? Am I anxious? Am I scared? Am I sad? – Psychotherapists talk of naming and ‘taming’ our emotions - then the limbic brain can be less in charge and we cool off the urgent emotional response.

2. R- is for Relax. We have heard this umpteen times- ‘just relax’- ‘take break’- but it is crucial- we need to turn off the fight- flight or freeze response at a bodily level. Luckily we have access to this via any type of body based movement or awareness that brings on the relaxation response - the parasympathetic response.

This could be at either end of a scale of exertion from cardio- based sport to doing yoga, taking a bath, getting a massage or deep diaphragmatic (belly) breathing. If we use full abdominal breathing as the key, we can open the way to turn on this recuperating response on- our body responds and gets the message that it does not have to be ready for a threat - it can rest and heal.

3. E is for Examine our thoughts. We can call on our Neocortex again and notice how we sustain the fearful cycle by the thoughts we maintain in our heads. We can ask ourselves some simple questions. What am I telling myself?- ‘if I don’t get the project done on time, I’ll be fired and I’ll lose the house’. ‘If (s)he does not call me tomorrow it means (s)he does not  love me and I’ll always be alone’. ‘If I don’t get the job/ grade/ deal- I’m a loser’.

We often make a here and now problem a life and death or permanent situation. We can take that deep breath, and examine how what we tell ourselves keeps the stress rolling. We can find alternative ways to talk to ourselves in our heads - ‘this project is important - I am doing my best’.

4. E is for Expand our view. We can learn from neuroscientific research which indicates that well-being comes from an integrated brain - so neither the emotional fearful central brain, nor the abstract thinking brain, or the primitive instinctual brain dominates - but we experience flexible and stable responses that come from linking these regions.

Get the brain to work in harmony

We can promote this balance by noticing that a large amount of our stress comes from our thinking brain’s tendency to time travel – to rehash the past, imagine dreadful futures and create worries. We can counteract this by noticing the simple fact that the centre of time is this present moment. We can then bring our awareness from our thoughts to here and now. We can identify our feelings and realise that they are already here- that if we are sad - we are indeed sad. We often add to our stress by mentally running away from the feelings we dread. Yet we can learn to notice that we are still here in our body- and we are breathing, and right now we are probably O.K. In this way we reinforce connections between the brain regions that receive inputs about our bodily state, from our feelings and also from our thoughts. 

We can also offer ourselves an expanded view of life that counteracts our tendency to focus on what is negative. We can intentionally delight in our pleasures and absorb them. We can counteract our brain's tendency to remember what is bad by savouring what is good- the sensation of hug, a good laugh, and a delicious smell, the magic of seasons unfolding in nature, a thank you, a smile.

In this way we can harness the knowledge of our brain be FREE to react differently to stress.

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