“Stress is not an outer challenge; it is an inner response”, – Joe Loizzo & Moustafa Abdelrahman – “Building Resilience through Mindfulness and Compassion”.We experience stress as a response to challenges when we believe that we do not have the resources and capabilities to succeed. When that happens, our hearts may race, our palms may get sweaty, we may feel overwhelmed and resentful, and we may think: “I just want this to go away”.
Curiously, this can happen when we are let go from a job. It can also happen when we are promoted to a job and feel inadequate. It can happen when we go bankrupt and it can also happen in the early stages of starting our business. Bad things happen and we stress; that we know, AND good things, really good things that we want so much, can also happen and we stress.
Pause with me for a second and really let that sink in.
Go back to a time when you felt unbearably stressed after experiencing something you didn’t want. How did the stress feel in your body? Now go to a time when you felt the same amount of stress because something so good happened and you perceived that you can’t measure up to it or keep it. How did that feel in your body? Can you tune into how similar those two instances feel?
Now, ask yourself: in your knee-jerk reaction state, what did you do?
Maybe you started experiencing being tired all the time and so started sleeping in more, coming to work later and procrastinated on doing the things you needed to do. Maybe you became anxious and made more mistakes at work which in turn made you more anxious. Maybe you worked harder to distract yourself from the fear of failing and yet this fear stayed with you in the background and prevented you from saying no to an opportunity that would take your business in the wrong direction. Maybe you noticed that you were too busy putting out fires and weren’t aware then that this was happening because you’d become more aggressive in your management style and your direct reports felt too afraid of your reactions to report things early enough when you could have had more room to proactively solve them.
Most times, operating from this stressed state wasn’t helping, was it? It brought more unwanted results that kept you stuck in a vicious cycle of thoughts, emotions, behaviours and results.
What’s going on here? How did things go so wrong?
Investigating the Crime Scene – AKA Understanding the Brain
Before we get into psychology, let’s understand a little anatomy first. One myth we need to clear out of the way before we delve deeper is this: we don’t have one brain; we have three.
- Brainstem – also known as the reptilian brain. It receives and sends input from the body to the brain and back to regulate processes such as heartbeat, breath, sleep and arousal.
- Limbic System – also known as the old mammalian brain which we share with small mammals. It emotionally interprets this information and decides: we like it; it is good; let’s move towards it; we don’t like it; it is bad; let’s move away from it.
- Cortex – also known as the new mammalian brain. It is less reactive and is responsible for higher-order brain functions. It processes information, understands, conceptualizes, creates language, and makes meaning. It sets intentions, visualizes, creates values and morals.
Before the Fall – Our Brain’s Natural State
Biologically, we are wired to experience stress as a response to danger, which is a non-standard or out of the norm occurrence. The rest of the time we live in a safe state. This means that the innate state of our brain is how it is designed to function when in safety. When we feel safe, we are externally-focused, solutions-oriented and geared towards social engagement and collaboration.
In our natural state, we are designed for contribution and connection.
When we are operating from our natural state – safety, here is how our brain is functioning:
- Cortex – is run by Central Executive Network. In this state, this newest, smartest kid on the block takes the leadership role and is in full social engagement mode. Our brain under the command of the prefrontal cortex is immersed in observing the world around it with curiosity, seeing solutions and finding ways to cooperate and support our kinship and loved ones. We are in social mode.
- Limbic System – is run by the Emotional Memory network. In this state, our brain is like a winsome kid who is the heart of loving and joyous social circles. In this state we are experiencing prosocial positive emotions. We easily understand and share in the emotions of others. We feel connection, love, joy and want to play and bond.
- Brainstem – is run by the Social Autonomic Reward Network (or the Ventral Vagal Network). In this state, we are like that kid who seems to have been born on a surfboard and effortlessly rides the waves of an ocean, and of life. Our bodies find their stable equilibrium and are balanced, centered, relaxed and responsive, enabling us to contribute and connect with ease.
In the Eye of the Tiger – Our Brain under Stress
When we are exposed to events that have the potential to threaten our safety and wellbeing, our brains shut down the safety networks described above and turn on the networks that are designed to protect us from danger.
Under stress, we become self-protective, closed off, and hypervigilant.
And if the stress is extreme enough, we switch to Fight, Flight, Faint and Freeze.
When we are operating from danger, here is what happens:
- Cortex – we perceive threat, or that a life event is too much to handle, the prefrontal cortex responsible for higher functioning goes offline and we default to older self protective systems. In this mode, it is as if that smart kid becomes the ostracized nerd who is no longer included or consulted. Our brain switches instead to the Default Mode Network and we become self-absorbed and ruminate in thinking of worst-case scenarios.
- Limbic System – the limbic system pushes the prefrontal cortex aside and takes over instead (another term for it is the amygdala hijack) and our brain switches to the Salience Network. It is as if that socially outgoing, inclusive and loving kid now becomes the bully, cagey and self-interested and bosses all around. In this mode, distressing emotions such as anger, anxiety, shame and fear are evoked and we become emotionally reactive. We respond by becoming hypervigilant, constantly scanning for danger and sensing for Fight Flight Faint or Freeze states.
- Brainstem – we switch to the Primal Autonomic Stress Network (or the Dorsal Vagus Network) and our bodies tense up or shut down as our primal self-protective Fight, Flight, Faint or Freeze reflex reactivities set in.
So what’s next? What do we do about it all? 🙂 This blog is part 1 of 2, stay tuned for part 2 of 2 next week to get “the journey back home” to a regulated state.
And this by the way is a collaborative blog project between myself and my partner Lulwa Saffarini. Check her out on her new blog channel on medium.