April is Stress Awareness Month. Experiencing stressful periods in life is very common and not all stress is bad for us, in fact, if we didn't have any stress in our life we wouldn't be motivated to do anything! Some level of stress is good for us but like most things, too much can cause a physical and mental drain on our body.
Read on to understand how and why we are all hardwired to stress, why that is a good thing and how to embrace it.
The Triune Brain - our internal hard wiring that perhaps could do with a software update?
We often beat ourselves up for feeling anxious or getting worked up over things but it's not our fault. We are literally hardwired to be stressed. That may sound strange and negative but it is for good reason. If we were not hardwired in this way, we would not have survived as a species and be alive today. Let that just settle for a moment. Stress is good for us. Stressing about the stress isn't so much.
Another revelation is that we have not one but three brains that have evolved over the last 3 million years (or thereabouts), all of which have the ability to trigger our fight, flight or freeze stress response. Technically, we have five brains if you wanted to include your gut and your heart brain (yes, we have brain cells lining those organs too), but we'll stay with the triune brain for this blog. Bet you feel way more brainier now eh?
The first to evolve was our reptilian brain, a very primal response designed to react to danger in a nano-second to preserve life. 250 million years ago (or thereabouts) we didn't have time to calculate how long it would take that wild animal with the huge sharp teeth charging towards us to reach us, or what we thought its intentions were or how we felt about it - we just ran away, really fast, otherwise we would have be eaten!
100 million years later (or thereabouts) we developed our mammalian brain which could feel emotion. Remembering how it felt to be hunted by that wild animal with the huge sharp teeth would be enough for your reptilian brain to sense danger and trigger the stress response, without stopping to assess if the danger was actually real.
Around 3 million years ago (or thereabouts) our superbly sophisticated neo-cortex brain evolved with the powerful ability to think. The neo-cortex could now think about the day when the wild animal with the huge sharp teeth was coming to eat us, which evoked the emotion felt, and triggered the primal stress response, again without checking if that danger was actually present.
As well as having a direct experience that triggers our stress response, we literally can think and feel our way into it too. The mind does not stop to decipher whether the event, thought or feeling is a real or perceived threat. That would take too much time, so the fight, flight or freeze response kicks in regardless. The fight, flight or freeze response is our body's stress response that prepares us to either fight our way out of danger; take flight and run away/avoid the event or freeze us to the spot. I experienced the latter at the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa - I literally could not move my legs until it was time to go back down!
These days, we are lucky enough not to be hunted by wild animals anymore and, for most of us, we do not face many real dangers but our survival mode is still very much hardwired in our system to respond in the same way. Our 'dangers' are now the challenging weekly meeting; giving a presentation; going to the dentist or entering a lift perhaps. They are not real threats to life but if we find them unpleasant or stressful events, our mind reacts as if they are danger and the stress F.F.F response kicks-in. The stress response floods our bodies with stress hormones but instead of running away or fighting our way out of the situation, we tend to sit down and carry on working. Not exhausting the stress hormones for their intended purpose means we are often going about our day feeling 'triggered'. When triggered, the sympathetic nervous becomes the most active, impairing our 'rest and digest' parasympathetic function which can be wearing on the body over time.
Some of us are more hardwired than others to respond to stressful events than others, which is why some people free climb mountains without any ropes and others feel terrified navigating their way around Tescos (that was me). Personally, I found it really helpful to understand that my stress, anxiety and panic attacks was just my body's way of trying to protect me. I also found it really useful to understand that all the funny feelings inside when I was stressed or anxious were simply a physiological response to something unpleasant, known or unknown - it was not me! The signs and symptoms we feel when we are stressed such as: rapid heartbeat, shakiness, tension, dry mouth, sweating, butterflies, nausea, fast breathing, snappiness... the list goes on. All these are actually signs that we need to stop, take stock and care for ourselves. Our body is so amazing that it gives us warning signals that our wellbeing is suffering, but we are often not aware enough to notice them or they are ignored until a crisis situation is reached.
"If you listen to your body's whispers, you'll never have to hear it scream" - unknown
Don't fight it, feel it!
Have you noticed that the extra story telling in the mind around your stress makes it, well, more stressful that it needs to be? Or, that your worries about becoming worried in a situation makes your anxiety stronger? Fighting against, pushing away or brooding about things tends to make them feel much worse. A mindful approach would be to accept whatever it is we are facing and to embrace the difficulty with care and compassion towards ourselves. Maybe, instead of stressing about being stressed, or becoming anxious about being anxious, notice yourself getting caught up in that cycle. Instead try to feel gratitude that your body is preparing you to deal with a tricky situation or alerting you to take better care. A radical notion perhaps, but that shift in attitude can help break the stress response and put you in a better place to think calmly about how to positively address the difficulty you are facing.
"What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size" - Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung
I hope you have found the science behind your hardwired response to stress helpful. Please, let yourself off the hook more, your stress response kicks-in way faster that your logical mind. You may not have control of that primal stress response but you absolutely have the power to respond to it in a much calmer way. Next time you are triggered, give your mind a compassionate, mindful hug, reassure it that all is ok and maybe then it too will begin to stress less about the stress.