Stress is a common experience to all human beings. As a starting point for understanding how to reduce stress, it can be useful to explore what’s happening in the brain and body.
When we're stressed, we revert to our prehistoric selves. Hundreds and thousands of years of evolution melt away and our brain and body prepare to save us from imminent attack. This superb capability has helped make us a hugely successful species, although it has some less than helpful side effects!
Deep in the brain our limbic system houses a tiny almond shaped structure, the amygdala. This is essentially our fear centre and it becomes very active when we're faced with threat.
The challenge is our limbic system struggles to differentiate between real threat (such as the danger of stepping out into busy traffic) and perceived threat (like worrying about deadlines at work). So, we end up experiencing the same fear-based reaction if we feel overloaded with work as we would facing a fast-moving vehicle at close quarters.
We experience a surge of stress hormones including cortisol and adrenaline which enable our body to fight, flight or freeze in the face of danger. In this highly aroused biological and emotional brain state, it becomes extremely hard to think rationally.
In a non-stressed state, it’s relatively easy to recall the useful tips, techniques and healthy coping strategies we've gathered over the years.
However, once the amygdala is aroused, we’re more likely to find the tools are not in our immediate awareness unless they've become learned behaviours. This means we default to familiar but less helpful coping mechanisms. This less helpful brain state is often referred to as automatic pilot.
How to Reduce Stress Using Neuroplasticity
Automatic pilot makes day to day living straight-forward and less exhausting for our brains than consciously considering every single thought and action.
However, this default state also leads to the potential for us to travel familiar well-trodden paths including unhealthy food choices, increased alcohol consumption, and other unhelpful coping strategies.
Thankfully, with gentle persistence, we can focus repeated and directed attention to new pathways enabling those to gradually become our new normal.
Consistently applying attention in this way leads to physical brain changes and ultimately the new pathways become our default behavioural choices.
The ability for the brain to change in this way is called neuroplasticity and is a relatively new field of neurological understanding. Neuroplasticity reminds us of the capability of our amazing brains and the impact that new small practices, consistently applied can have on our behaviour and ultimately our psychological wellbeing.
A critical skill for stress management is the ability to step out of automatic pilot.
This is achieved through practising mindfulness - noticing what's happening to us in a non-judgemental way and pausing before responding.
In addition, we aid the process of neuroplasticity by practising our useful mental wellbeing tools even when we're not under stress.
A helpful metaphor is developing our physical fitness. It'd be unreasonable to expect body strength to happen rapidly with only one or two workout sessions. Instinctively we know that physical fitness is achieved through regular practice. Mental fitness is the same.
Be Kind to Yourself While Working on Stress Management
New mental wellbeing skills take time to become your default - it’s important to remember you're human and you won’t get it right every time.
Remembering that new behaviours take time and patience will support you as you learn. This is the heart of self-compassion – recognising we'll fall down from time to time and allowing that to be okay.
Next time you're stressed, try treating yourself with the kindness you would a dear friend, asking; what would help me most right now?
Additionally, a sense of self-awareness enables you to become aware of your stress triggers.
Ask yourself: how do I know when I'm overwhelmed and stressed?
Where does stress show up in my body?
Armed with this awareness, you can pause, move away from default automatic pilot reactions, and consider a wiser choice.
Lucy works with leaders, managers and entrepreneurs across industries and uses science backed tools and techniques that can be applied by anyone to enable them to move from surviving to thriving. Lucy holds a BSc in Life Sciences, MSc in Human Resource Management, and is a chartered member of the Institute of Personnel and Development (MCIPD). Additionally, Lucy is a qualified mindfulness guide.