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The Mind Under Stress

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

We talk about stress so often that it almost feels like you have to be stressed to be a valuable employee. Somehow, along the way, stress has become synonymous with success. And through it all, we have lost the ability to care for our bodies, our minds, and our families. This blog highlights what happens to the body under stress.

It starts in the Brain

As so many things in life, stress starts in the brain. In the amygdala to be precise. The amygdala is this tiny almond shaped part of your brain right behind your eyes. It's only job is to freak out when anything out of the ordinary happens. Back in caveman days, out of the ordinary might mean a predator was nearby. However, today, out of the ordinary might mean an email from a coworker you don't like, a loud noise coming from traffic outside, or a minute facial expression your boss just made. The amygdala notices it and fires up sending stress hormones to the prefrontal cortex (the decision making part of the brain). On the way there, it makes sure to stop at the hippocampus which is responsible for memories - good AND bad. All of this information, the warning signs by the amygdala and the memories by the hippocampus, flood the prefrontal cortex. It's job is to sort out which things out of the ordinary are things to worry about and which ones are not.

For example, let's pretend you are a nervous flier. One of out four adults are nervous fliers so you might not even have to pretend. BUT, let's say that flying is not for you. Since you don't do it that often, anytime you are on an airplane your amygdala fires up because it's not a normal place for you to be. Additionally, since you don't fly often, you don't recognize the sounds of a typical functioning airplane. So, you're already on edge and the amygdala is already ready to go and starts sending warning signs to the prefrontal cortex. On the way there, it stops at the hippocampus which has already studiously pulled up memories of articles about recent plane crashes as ammunition to really get you fired up. By the time all of this information floods the prefrontal cortex it is so strong that the prefrontal cortex is overwhelmed and cannot do it's job. So you start to sweat, your hear starts to race, and you start to panic. All because your prefrontal cortex is unable to function in this moment and let you know that the sound that you just heard is the landing gear retracting after take off.

Way to Calm Yourself Down

Usually, the thing that really overwhelms you is not the "thing that is out of the ordinary" but your memories and imagine about "that thing". In our example above with flying, the thing that overwhelms you is not the sound the airplane just made but instead your imagination taking over telling you that you will crash and die. A quick and simple way to calm yourself down is to stop your imagination. If you cannot imagine the airplane crashing, then your prefrontal cortex won't get overwhelmed and can it's job at assessing whether there is actual danger. One way to stop imagination is a grounding exercise called 5 4 3 2 1. It's a way to get you out of your head and back into the here and now.

Here's how it work:

Step 1: Take a deep breath and focus your gaze on something in front of you.

Step 2: Same 5 things you see, 5 things you hear, and 5 things you feel against your body.

Step 3: Once you've done this whole sequence, state 4 things you see, 4 things you hear, and 4 things against your body.

Step 4: Repeat this pattern with 3 things, then 2 things, and then 1 thing.

Step 5: Take another deep breath and see how your body feels now.

This whole sequence takes about 2 minutes and can be done anywhere, anytime, and as often as you need to.

Try this out in non-stressful environments first so that you can get used to the skill. Then use the skill in stressful situations to give yourself a chance to calm down and assess how threatening the situation really is.

If you like this blog or have tried it out and it has worked feel free to email us and share your success story. Come back regularly for more tips and tricks on how to manage stress. If you would like to schedule a coaching session, feel free to contact us.

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