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The Stress Mindset: Change how you engage with stress
Author: Alex Andrews CPHR SHRM-SCP, Nick Jackson B.A. M.C., and Ryan James M.Ed C.C.C.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you are walking home from a physically exhausting day at work. You spent most of it outside in the heat, you are exhausted and ready to rest for the day when, out of the corner of your eye, you see a 250-pound lion approaching you.
Oh yes, and you’re a gazelle.
What is your automatic reaction? Truly, think about it for a moment, what do you do?
You see, life as a gazelle is in the immediate now and present. Every action is calculating the cost-benefit of survival. You need food, you simply lower your head and graze; you need shelter from the heat, you seek out the nearby woods; you see that 250-pound lion rapidly approaching, YOU RUN. Every action is instinctual and delivers instant gratification to satisfy the need. The human mind was no different, prehistorically.
The actions we took, well not us, but our predecessors, brought immediate benefit. Everything they did was solely focused on the now, following their instincts to survive. Whether avoiding predators, seeking shelter, hunting and gathering, and even reproducing, each action or reaction was for the sole purpose of surviving.
The brain used anxiety as a mechanism to protect us from the stress of danger, starvation, and death. When we solved a problem, those feelings dissipated.
Today, thanks to our ancestors’ desire to keep solving problems, our environments have evolved to the point that they delay the reward of our actions and create anticipation of the benefit that may come. You don’t receive a paycheque until after a week or two of work. We agonize over textbooks studying, only to receive a degree years later. We make financial decisions to set us up for retirement. It is as though we wear a badge of honour for having our future so well planned out.
The gap, however, is that this delayed reward system easily induces chronic stress and anxiety. Although our environment has changed, our brains are still programmed to value immediate rewards when we face acute stressors. With technological advancement, our environment is changing at an exponential rate, but our neurological hardwiring can’t keep up. The stress of this produces elevated levels of anxiety, but with a delayed reward system, anxiety doesn’t subside.
Hans Selye, the father of stress research said “it is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it”
We hold that stress is the normal reaction the body has when changes occur. This reaction can be physical, mental, or emotional. So, by this definition, stress isn’t inherently evil, just like it wasn’t with our progenitors, but rather it is how we engage with stress that reconciles the brains anxiety over the stressor. The response we have to stress is directly correlated to how we perceive our environment.
How do we combat this? First, let’s understand, physiologically, what is happening.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response
We all have a natural physical response to stress called the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response, or affectionately called the Lizard Brain (or maybe gazelle brain in our case). As mentioned previously, this response was originally adapted to keep us alive when there’s a physical threat, however, most of us don’t have a 250-pound lion walking around the office. Rather, we experience this response when we think about projects, deadlines, relationship conflict, family etc.
If we were faced with a physical threat, the body’s adaptations would be extremely useful. Some of these changes are; rapid heart rate, tense muscles, and rapid breathing (body preparing to attack or run away). We additionally might experience cold hands (shifting blood to vital organs and minimizing blood loss from injuries to limbs), tunnel vision (keeping the predator or escape in focus is great for survival, but losing track of them and focusing on nearby flowers in bloom is a great way to become someone else’s lunch), and a digestive shift (the body is prioritizing energy and digesting your last meal is not high on the priority list). Interestingly, both the predator and prey have essentially the same physical response, but I would guess that the predator is a lot more excited about it.
The problem for us is that most of today’s stressors are not a matter of life and death, but our bodies may naturally respond as though they are. This highlights the absolute necessity of responding to stressful situations with an intentional and thought out plan. If we don’t respond on purpose, our bodies will take over with a response that is not as effective for managing today’s stressors and we are left feeling like prey running from a predator, instead of a predator excitedly moving towards it’s next meal.
How can we change our stress response in the moment?
The answer to this is that we don’t. Well at least we tend not to in the moment. As stated previously our hope is to change our mindset in every moment. When we consistently challenge stress and how we view it, we begin to create lasting neurological and physiological changes that can have a significant impact on our quality of life.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It”, states that “going through stress makes you better at it, you may find it easier to face each new challenge. In fact, research shows that the expectation to learn from a stressful experience can shift your physical stress response…”(McGonigal, 2015, Penguin Press, New York, NY).
What McGonigal is ‘stressing’ (excuse the pun), is that our body’s natural stress response doesn’t, or may not change at all. We change how we choose to respond to stress. We experience a powerful shift from a stress response to a challenge response.
With this new perspective, the more consistent we are with exercising this mindset to challenge stress, along with other skills and tools, we can change our automatic patterns for responding to stress. By adding grounding, breathing or value exploration to our lives we can further enhance this shift in mindset.
To change how we respond to stress we need to activate the rational part of the brain and one of the most effective ways to do this is through intentional breathing and relaxation exercises.
A simple exercise we call the “Tension Release”, helps our bodies to respond differently to the fight, flight or freeze response by recognizing the tension and then relaxing into it. The Tension Release exercise has two parts:
Five minutes of observing and releasing tension throughout the body. Starting at the head and moving through the body inviting each subsequent muscle group to release tension.
As we increase our awareness of how to release tension in the body, we can then use this exercise in small bursts throughout the day. This can be while we are eating lunch; at a meeting, while sitting and listening to a presentation; and while experiencing small bouts of road rage, instead of giving in and yelling at a nearby driver. We can release tension wherever we are! As we do so, our bodies respond differently to stress and we re-engage the rational brain.
Understanding the Rational Brain
Our rational brain is the most recently evolved part of the brain. It allows us to engage in goal-oriented activity through planning and logical reasoning. The massive surface area of our prefrontal cortex (rational brain) is essentially the difference between us and other animals – remember the gazelle. However, when we are automatically responding to stress as a threat rather than a goal, the rational brain basically shuts off and the old lizard brain (or gazelle brain) kicks in. This part of the brain is not logical and doesn’t excel at problem solving (lizards and gazelles don’t make great chess players).
So, once we have activated the rational part of the brain through intentional breathing and tension release exercises, we are prepared to deal with stress on purpose instead of in automatic or self-defeating ways (I’m looking at you Netflix).
The rational brain allows us to see stress as an opportunity for growth and as an achievable goal. McGonigal, describes this changed perspective and adaptive type of stress response as a “Challenge Response” rather than a threat response. A challenge response means shifting from viewing our stresses, trials or difficulties in life as something that is dangerous or weighing us down, to viewing them as opportunities for growth that we are well equipped to accomplish.
There are a variety of skills and strategies for making this shift, but one of the most effective ways is to focus on our own talents, capabilities and examples of past successes, rather than hyper-focusing on the barriers to achieving our goals. A similarly impactful shift occurs when we remind ourselves of the important role of stress in growth. Many of us have thought at some point or another that we would like a stress-free life. Unfortunately, a stress-free life is also a growth-free life. As we activate the rational brain, we understand the absolute necessity of pushing ourselves just outside of our comfort zones in order to become the people that we want to become.
Though this may sound simplistic, consistently making these little adjustments to our perspective can allow us to use the energy of the body’s stress response to increase our ability to move towards meaningful life goals. It also allows us to gradually create lasting change in the brain that makes this response the new normal for us.
Try it Yourself
Next time you run into whatever your version of a 250-pound lion is, try the following and notice how you feel.
- Use the tension release exercise to manage the body’s physical response to stress and activate the rational brain
- Remind yourself that stressful experiences give us the capacity to grow, learn and improve
- Bring to mind times in the past when you have used your talents, skills and abilities to successfully achieve goals and navigate stress
- Identify what steps you can take right now to accomplish a goal or resolve the stress
- Write down your insights
Alex Andrews is a senior Human Resources professional and leadership coach, whose life’s work is focused on helping individuals activate a high-performance mindset and discover their intrinsic motivators for self-development and growth. Alex can be contacted at email@example.com
Nick Jackson is a Registered Psychologist, who works with individuals and couples with a wide range of emotional, mental health and relationship issues. He works primarily from Cognitive-Behavioural, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, solution-focused, mindfulness, and client-centred frameworks. Nick can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ryan James is a Canadian Certified Counsellor working with addiction or compulsion challenges in life, low mood or depression, anxiety, grief and loss. His work is centered on client based integrative methods of therapies. Ryan can be contacted at email@example.com