How Much of Your Stress is Unnecessary?

I love Kelly McGonigal’s TED Talk about stress titled, “How To Make Stress Your Friend” – she shares that it is not stress that kills us, but how we perceive it.

How we perceive stress has to do with both our brain and our mind working together against a perceived threat.  Being a self-professed Geek, I like to think of the brain as the hardware and the mind as the software – both of which need to be kept in optimum health so that you can achieve whatever you desire (or to simply function well in life). Let’s start with the brain side of things – the brain is an organ in your body – so the health of your body directly affects the health of your brain. This is why you need to exercise, get enough sleep, and make sure you are getting the nutrient’s that your body (and brain) needs.

Taking care of your brain as a part of your body sets the foundation. Before we get to the mind (or the software), it is important to understand the “safety mechanism” your brain has for your survival. When you perceive something as a threat, your brain bypasses the higher conscious functioning portion of your brain (which is where we want to spend most of our time) and goes right into the response mode of fight or flight – although with my experience of people in crisis, I’d also like to add freeze or freak out as responses. Our primal brain chooses one of those responses – the one it deems most appropriate – and goes with it. Here is the problem though – in modern day, we are often not faced with a predator hunting us down, or some other true emergency. Rather, our brain is going into fight, flight, freeze, or freak out in situations that definitely do not qualify as true threats.

I’ve coached several people lately that jumped right into this survival response mode because their expectations weren’t met in a situation or someone at work said something that they felt disrespected them, or other similar situation that definitely wasn’t life threatening. I felt bad for the individuals because I knew that all the stress and the anxiety they were facing – the huge emotional reaction they found themselves in – was all their own doing. If they had understood that their logical mind was hijacked because they got triggered into a survival response, they could have calmed down and then worked their way through the response in a more logical manner. The strategy for making sure you don’t allow your primal brain to hijack your higher functioning is to first, set the foundation by taking proper care of your brain (therefore, your body) and second, understand that if you are not in a true emergency situation and you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction, that you’ve gone into fight or flight and you need to take a break, perhaps do some deep breathing exercises, until you can get back into the logical reasoning portion of your brain.

Which brings us to the mind – there are a lot of different experts out there who have differing opinions on exactly what the mind is – I subscribe to the ones that define it as the software program running on the hardware that is the brain. We already know that it is important for the brain to function well in order for the mind to function well. The mind is what holds our beliefs – our perceptions that we’ve created through our life experiences. This is why understanding that everything we take in from our surrounding world and the people in it, we filter through these beliefs we’ve created – is key to not just surviving this life, but thriving. It is the beliefs that we’ve created that lead to us getting triggered in certain situations, which take us down the rabbit hole of the emotional response of fight or flight. It is fascinating to watch these triggers in action. I was in a meeting once and an individual rolled their eyes – this was not a trigger for most people in the room; however, it was for one particular person and they went off – they became very angry and let everyone else know about it. For some reason, in this person’s past, the rolling of one’s eyes meant something bad to that person. Because they weren’t aware that was a trigger for them, they went into full response mode, by-passing the logical function of their brain, and most likely causing stress damage to both their body and brain.

There you have it folks a very high-level overview of how your brain and mind function together and how important it is to at least be aware of this so that you can at least reduce the stress that you are causing yourself. What is that saying? Something like – it isn’t what happens to you, it’s how you respond.