When we think about stress, what comes to mind? Something we live with? A badge of honour? A sign that we’re working hard enough? 

We are taught from an early age that life is stressful and as such, emotional, and that taking on as much as we can is the norm, often to the detriment of our wellbeing. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Think of a time when you have felt emotionally overwhelmed

  • The amygdala in your brain is like a security officer. When it detects a threat to your security, it seeks to minimise the danger by moving into a protective mode – will this hurt me? Will I fail?
  • Your amygdala then increases your emotional arousal. It is vital that you pay attention to your early warning signs that this is happening:
  • physiological (e.g. heart racing, tensing muscles, sweating)
  • cognitive (e.g. forgetfulness, concentration loss, negative self-talk)
  • emotional (e.g. tearfulness, irritability)
  • behavioural (e.g. biting nails, rubbing hands)
  • When we experience the feeling of fight, flight or freeze, our emotional arousal has hijacked our cognitive brain. Our amygdala is in the driving seat.

That’s a real problem. It means that the clever part of the brain that makes us human, responsible for problem solving, planning, rational thought, self-control, empathy and so on is diminished. 

  • That means we then become hypervigilant, observing threats where they don’t exist – looking for evidence of danger.
  • The  black and white thinking that is a consequence of high emotional arousal reduces our ability to see other perspectives – it’s like putting a spotlight on the problem instead of a search light to explore alternative possibilities.  
  • Our emotional responses can appear as over-reactions and irrational, in the absence of the neo-cortex to maintain control. You can probably think of times you’ve said or done something that with hindsight, you regret.
  • All this impacts on our mental and physical health, relationships and performance.

A Smoke Alarm approach

The fight-flight response is a safety mechanism designed to keep us safe but it hasn’t evolved and so we continue to use this physiological process even though experiences that trigger it aren’t actually life threatening. It’s a bit like a smoke alarm going off… it doesn’t know if there is really a fire or someone has burnt the toast. We often describe this as going into protection mode and any number of things in modern life can put us in and keep us in protection mode which isn’t good for our overall health.

The need to be aware

Emotional arousal is a red flag to stop and take action. We have a choice about whether we take notice of our signs and act on them or not. And they affect all of us – no one is invincible, and those who suggest they thrive on stress are demonstrating the classic symptom of being caught up in their own world. Our brain can’t hold high levels of emotional arousal for long periods and perform well.

Taking Action 

Because triggers aren’t usually a real threat to our safety, we can alter our emotional response by thinking about the cause differently. Such cognitive strategies include:  

  1. Talk to someone – move from a spotlight to a search light, to see alternative perspectives. 
  1. Be solution focused instead of focusing on the problem. What would that look like and then what is the first step to achieving that?
  1. Acknowledge that worrying is normal but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take conscious control : Do something (take action), delete (what you have no control over), defer to a more relevant time, or delegate to someone more appropriate. 
  1. Set boundaries for yourself and communicate them clearly to others.
  1. Reframe stressors e.g. ‘I can’t do what’s asked of me’ could become ‘I haven’t got the information or advice I need to feel confident to do it yet.’ 
  1. Be aware of your inner critic. CHOOSE what to do with your thoughts. Your amygdala should not dictate your behaviour.
  1. Be kind to yourself! Make sure you balance your own needs with others. 

When we are aware of the impact of high emotional arousal, we realise the need to take it seriously. Why would we continue to operate in a way where we’re not fulfilling our potential, where we’re jeopardising our relationships, where we approach life with our amygdala in the driving seat and not our cognitive brain?  

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