Over recent years, the conversation around stress awareness and particularly work-related stress has become more open as many of us are becoming more aware of the detrimental effect prolonged and/or excessive stress can have on both our physical and mental wellbeing.
But what is stress and when does it become a problem?
Stress itself is not a problem. In fact, stress chemicals (like cortisol) are extremely helpful to us as they energise the body and heighten our focus and courage, giving us the ability to take action and enabling us to meet daily challenges, to perform at our best and to reach our goals.
However, prolonged and excessive stress can impact a person’s cognitive, physical, emotional and psychological (behavioural) functioning.
This is because when stress occurs in order to help us meet daily challenges and to perform better, it produces cortisol and that cortisol has an upper limit, but when stress is inflicted on us due to extreme pressures, it isn’t capped – it just keeps coming and this constant and prolonged release of cortisol into the body does a few unhelpful things. It increases blood pressure and cholesterol and it weakens the immune system, resulting in low resilience, low confidence, low motivation and poor concentration, impacting our ability to function normally.
In order to understand the physiological cause of stress, we need to take a tour of the human brain.
There are two really important parts to our brain:
The Intellectual Brain
Our intellectual brain, the front part of which is otherwise known as ‘The Prefrontal Cortex’ is the part of the brain that you know as you. It is the conscious part of your brain – the part that interacts with the world and with others and it is the part that we don’t share with other animals.
The intellectual brain is logical and rational and it is attached to a vast intellectual resource – the intellectual mind.
This is where we store all of the knowledge, skills and experience that we’ve built up over the years, calling on them to make decisions, put forward persuasive arguments, be creative and inventive, and come up with solutions.
When we operate from this part of the brain, we generally get things right in life, because it approaches any situation positively, seeking opportunity and coming up with answers based on a proper assessment of the situation.
The Primitive Brain
The primitive brain is the original part – the part that existed
way before the intellectual part of the brain developed.
There are three
to this part of the
1. The Amygdala
This is the central and most influential part and is the part that regulates our stress response, otherwise known as flight or fight.
2. The Hippocampus
This stores all of our behaviour patterns and templates: our automatic responses (including our sometime inappropriate ones!)
3. The Hypothalamus
This part is responsible for all the chemical responses in our brain (including our stress hormones and happy hormones).
The primitive mind is a negative mind. It will always see things from the worst possible perspective. If you think about it, it has to in order to keep us safe.
It’s also obsessional, encouraging us to proactively check for danger and it’s vigilant too, so, if the perception is that danger is all around, then it will keep us on red alert.
And, because the primitive brain is not an intellect and it can’t be innovative it has to refer to previous patterns of behaviour to come up with a solution for our current situation, whether these are appropriate or not.
When our anxiety goes up (and it can be a gradual process), we lose intellectual control and the primitive mind takes over and if our primitive mind perceives that, for one reason or another, our life is in some sort of crisis, it will step in to help.
So how do we create this anxiety which causes us to move from the intellectual part of the brain to the primitive part?
Well, quite simply, anxiety is caused by negative thinking. Every negative thought we have is converted into anxiety. It is not the events in our lives that necessarily cause the perception of crisis. It’s our thought patterns surrounding the events in our life.
Stress is not the result of our work, or our boss, or our family, or our finances. It is not the result of our journey to work or our health challenges or in fact any other circumstances we are in. Stress is the result of the thoughts we have in relation to those things.
We can create anxiety by simply negatively forecasting the future:
Big things like:
- We will never be able to afford that
- I’ll never get promoted
- I’ll never have a baby
Or, small things that might go wrong:
- What if I don’t get to the meeting on time?
- What if I haven’t prepared adequately?
- What if they ask me a question, I don’t know the answer to?
It’s the same when we go back over events from the past too, worrying about all those things that have already happened:
- I wish I’d done that
- Why didn’t I say this?
- What if they thought this about me?
So, every time we worry about something in the past or something that hasn’t happened yet, our brain thinks it’s actually happening in that moment. And when the primitive mind perceives there to be a threat, it will step in to try and help.
Unfortunately, our primitive brain doesn’t understand our modern world and it mistakes the stresses and strains of everyday life for dangerous situations and we respond accordingly with worrying and negative thoughts.
So, what happens to those thoughts? This is where the stress bucket comes in.
THE STRESS BUCKET
Every one of our negative thoughts get accumulated and stored in our metaphorical stress bucket.
So, if we worry about something 20 times, it goes in the stress bucket 20 times as 20 different events (remember our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality) and very quickly our stress bucket start to fill up.
When our stress bucket is full to overflowing we move from the intellectual sensible part of our brain (the part that knows just what to do and when to do it) down to that primitive flight or fight part.
This part of our brain has 3 default ways of responding:
Whilst this response does not necessarily mean that we are suffering with an anxiety disorder or with depression, it does mean that we will exhibit many of the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression.