- 17 May 2020
- Posted by: Mark Woodward
- Category: Anxiety, Stress
Why talk about stress?
Work is tough – actually, life is tough! It can be scary and overwhelming. This is true for everybody, but can be even more so if you have additional challenges to deal with, whether those are as a result of dyslexia, or a million other reasons.
The truth is, we need some stress in our lives. If we lived a totally stress free life we wouldn’t feel the need to do or achieve anything. However, stress can become a problem when we feel it too much, too often or for too long.
So how can we manage this stress thing? Well firstly, it helps to have a little understanding of what we call stress, and how it works.
What is stress?
Very simply, stress is a result of our brain trying to keep us alive. Our brain’s most important job in the world is to look after us – and it’s had hundreds of thousands of years to get really good at this. It does this is by being extremely quick and efficient at preparing us to deal with threats.
When we feel scared or worried our brains take this as a sign that we are in danger – and it takes over.
Unfortunately, our brains have only developed one way of dealing with a danger – you may have heard the term “fight or flight response”. Everything our brain does next is to prepare us for one of those courses of action.
How does it work
How does our brain prepare us to do this? By using chemicals to send messages, our brain immediately orders lots of physical changes to our body – each of which is designed to help us survive the next few minutes of, what our brain believes, will be fighting or running for our lives…
Some examples of those changes….
● Your breathing will become faster and shallower. We’ll need lots of oxygen fast so we’ll need to breathe in and out quickly.
● Your blood will thicken. This will help slow down any bleeding should we get bitten or cut.
● Blood is pulled in from your outer limbs – again this will reduce bleeding should your arms or legs get hurt. It also helps free more blood to use in your big muscles so they can work harder.
● Your heart beats harder and faster because it needs to pump your now thicker blood even faster around your muscles.
● Blood leaves your stomach and is directed to where it can be of better use – after all we won’t be eating for the next few minutes! Blood rushing out of your tummy is often what causes that ‘sinking feeling’, or ‘butterflies’.
● Your vision will change – becoming narrower to focus more on the threat in front of you.
● Your big muscles will receive a boost – for example your leg muscles will get a temporary turbo charge so that you can run faster.
● Your immune system is turned down – these resources are needed elsewhere right now – catching a bug isn’t high on the list of priorities when we’re preparing to survive the next few minutes! This is why it’s easier to catch a cold when you are stressed.
● Your brain will turn off some of your logical thinking abilities – it may become harder to plan, recall information or think rationally; your brain has stepped in and essentially decided that we don’t have time to ask ourselves if the scary monster is really as scary as it looks. We simply have to act quickly. This may be why it’s hard to think rationally when you are stressed, and people act “in the heat of the moment”.
● Our brains will become very protective of us, and very suspicious of things around us. This is because our brains have been told we’re in a dangerous situation so it’s safer for our brain to assume that everything around is a potential danger, because at least then we’ll be prepared for it. Unfortunately, this makes it very hard for us to remain positive or be optimistic.
● Catastrophize. We will think about all the ways in which the situation can go horribly wrong. We’ll only see negative outcomes. This is our brain doing threat analysis – it’s trying to assess all the possible outcomes for which it needs to prepare. It’s not interested in thinking about positive outcomes because they’re not threats.
And as well as all of this, our brains are very quick learners. So, the next time we find ourselves beginning a course of action that led to danger once before, our brains won’t wait for the scary thing to materialise before it acts – it will begin preparing us now, just to be ready. This means that we can begin feeling stressed before we even arrive at work!
All these responses and preparations are great, and actually brilliantly designed, for when we do have to run or fight for our lives – and it’s why human beings are still around. But they are of little help when the threat we feel is from an approaching deadline, a presentation we have to give, or the threat of redundancy – in fact, many of these survival responses can actually make the situation harder for us to handle. But our brains haven’t had time to adapt to these types of threats – humans have spent nearly all of their existence living with fight or flight type dangers all around them, but only a few years with PowerPoint presentations!
Why can it be dangerous?
If this fight or flight response happens occasionally, our bodies can usually recover and we can carry on as normal. But all of these physical changes are not designed to last for long – just long enough to allow us to fight or escape. Think of it like a red alert designed to put everything on ‘emergency mode’ to get us out of danger. Once that danger passes it needs to wind down and recover. If red alert stays on for a long time, or happens too frequently, it not only puts tremendous strain on our bodies, but our brains don’t have time to make more of the chemicals it needs to keep our bodies in this fight or flight state.
But the threats we have in our lives today are rarely fixed by fighting or running away – believe me, I’ve tried – and it didn’t end well! We may worry for days before a deadline, or we may worry for weeks if our jobs are at risk. So the stress response – the red alert – just stays on, and it is exhausting! Nobody can remain on red alert for that long. Legs will ache due to all that extra energy being pumped into our muscles and not being used up. Brains working intensely for a long time may give us headaches. Tummies stay ‘turned off’ so we don’t eat properly, blood remains thick putting tremendous strain on our hearts, and so on….
Our brain finds it harder and harder to keep our bodies on red alert so what can our brain do? We are still feeling worried and anxious so our brain believes that the danger to our life is still there, but our brain has no more to give…it would be reasonable at this point for our brains to accept that we aren’t going to make it this time – which is a bit over the top as it’s unlikely we’re going to die from a PowerPoint presentation – but our brains don’t know that – fight or flight for our lives, remember?
But our brain wants to help us – so perhaps the one thing it can still do for us is to help us accept that fate too; so, it tells us that whatever we try to do will be hopeless; that there is no point in fighting or running anymore, life is rubbish anyway, and that just giving up may not be all that bad – perhaps the scary animal will kill us quickly if we just lie down and stop struggling.
This sounds a lot like depression, doesn’t it? But it may simply be our brains helping us to accept that it believes there is no hope. If you think this may be where you are, please talk to your doctor – it can be hard finding your way back from here on your own.
For some people this point can be reached quickly, for others it can take a long time, but eventually we will run out of the resources needed to stay in red alert – unless we can convince our brain that the danger has passed so it can turn all of this survival stuff off. Now here’s the good news – we have a way of doing that – and it’s simpler than you think…
What can we do about it?
It would be great if we could just stop feeling worried – then our brain would simply start turning all of these changes off. But if it was that easy to stop feeling worried about something there wouldn’t be so many books written about stress!
So, the next best thing we can do is to fool our brain into thinking we’re safe – convince our brain that the danger has passed and that we’re still alive, and it will turn off all of the changes it’s made, and begin the process of recovering and recharging.
One way of fooling our brain is to take charge of our breathing; when we’re frightened we know our breathing speeds up and becomes shallower, so if we start breathing slowly and deeply, our brain will believe we’ve stopped running or fighting, and that must mean that we’ve got away, mustn’t it?. “Great”, thinks our brain, “I can stop panicking and turn off all this fight or flight stuff.” And, if you think about it, we hear this advice all the time; when we’re stressed people tell us to “calm down”, “breathe deeply, breathe slowly”, or to “focus on our breathing”. All we’re trying to do is to fool our brain into thinking the danger has passed.
Another way of convincing our brain that the threat has gone away is to pay complete and utter attention to something else – after all, if we’ve started to think about things other than what we’re frightened off, then we can’t be that worried about it can we? “Great”, thinks our brain again, “we’re safe”. Focusing completely on something else, at the exclusion of everything else, is a powerful thing to be able to do – it’s the thinking behind techniques like mindfulness.
Now, I’m not going to suggest that fooling our brain by controlling our breathing or by concentration and focus are easy – after all, our brains have had thousands of years to get good at what they do! It’s tough, but with practice and some good techniques it can be done.
The main thing with all the many techniques out there is to be gentle and kind with yourself – sometimes it can take a lifetime to get good at it.
I’m hoping that having some understanding of the mechanics of what’s happening will help. And remember; all of the feelings we get when we become stressed (pounding heart, tingly fingers, etc.) are meant to happen – they are the result of a finely tuned piece of equipment – your brain and body – doing exactly what they’re designed to do.
Now go and practice fooling your brain!
Mark is a Senior Workplace Coach, Trainer and Needs Assessor at with iDiversity Consulting. For more information about Mark, visit linkedin.com/in/mark-woodward-3206b911