Stress is a common experience to all human beings. As a starting point for understanding how to handle stress, it can be useful to explore what’s happening to the brain and body.
Under stress 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.
Why is it so hard to put good habits into use when I need them most?
In a non-stressed state, it’s relatively easy to recall the useful tips, techniques and healthy coping strategies we have gathered over the years.
A relaxed brain can access these tools, almost as if sorting through a toolbox or a filing cabinet to come up with helpful solutions.
The answers that could support us require the rationality and deliberate focus of our prefrontal cortex to sift through years of unhelpful learned responses and find the golden nuggets.
However, once the amygdala is aroused, we’re more likely to find the tools are not in our immediate awareness unless they have 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 – and refers to unconscious learned behaviours.
Automatic pilot makes day to day living straight-forward and less exhausting for our brains than consciously considering every minute 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.
This moves them to the front of the filing cabinet and reduces our reliance on autopilot reactions.
The plastic brain
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.
Creating habits that stick
A critical skill for learning how to handle stress is the ability to step out of autopilot.
This is achieved through present moment awareness; noticing what is happening to us in a non-judgemental way and pausing before responding.
Taking a deep breath is a great place to start!
We aid the process of neuroplasticity by practicing our useful tools even when we're not under stress.
A useful metaphor is creating body strength and fitness. It would be unreasonable to expect physical fitness and strength to happen rapidly with only one or two muscle flexing repetitions at the gym. Instinctively we know that physical fitness is achieved through regular practice. Mental fitness is developed through a similar form of brain training.
New habits will take time to become our default.
There are no hard and fast rules, although we know from research that it may take anything from 21 to 60 days for new habits to become familiar. However, for many of us, practice is a lifetime of gentle, compassionate dedication.
Compassion and awareness in learning how to handle stress
Reminding yourself of your go-to approaches that have helped you handle stress in the past will ground you in stressful moments and be a source of positive reflection. Writing them down in a journal or some other written log can support you.
It’s important to remember you are human and you won’t get it right every time.
A willingness to accept your imperfections and understanding that new habits take time and patience will support you as you learn. This is the heart of self-compassion – recognising we will fall down from time to time, allowing that to be ok and knowing that true knowledge comes from the setbacks we experience in the path to personal growth.
Self-compassion has also been shown to be powerful tool in stressful moments.
Next time you are 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 us to become aware of our stress triggers.
Ask yourself; how do I know when I'm overwhelmed and stressed?
Where does stress show up in my body?
What thoughts enter my conscious awareness and are they supportive or not?
Armed with this awareness, we can take positive action, pausing to move ourselves away from default automatic pilot reactions and considering 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.